What's in a word? How instructions, suggestions, and social information change pain and emotion

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Abstract

Instructions, suggestions, and other types of social information can have powerful effects on pain and emotion. Prominent examples include observational learning, social influence, placebo, and hypnosis. These different phenomena and their underlying brain mechanisms have been studied in partially separate literatures, which we discuss, compare, and integrate in this review. Converging findings from these literatures suggest that (1) instructions and social information affect brain systems associated with the generation of pain and emotion, and with reinforcement learning, and that (2) these changes are mediated by alterations in prefrontal systems responsible for top-down control and the generation of affective meaning. We argue that changes in expectation and appraisal, a process of assessing personal meaning and implications for wellbeing, are two potential key mediators of the effects of instructions and social information on affective experience. Finally, we propose a tentative model of how prefrontal regions, especially dorsolateral and ventromedial prefrontal cortex may regulate affective processing based on instructions and socially transmitted expectations more broadly.

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