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The 2024 Global Year will examine what is known about sex and gender differences in pain perception and modulation and address sex-and gender-related disparities in both the research and treatment of pain.

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Here is another case-study highlighting the immense complexity of the brain, pain, and above all what it means to be what we are. In short, a 36-year-old French woman sustained a stroke that caused her to experience neuropathic pain and decreased sensation. Neither of these is unusual following damage to certain parts of the brain. More remarkable, however, was her sudden compulsive desire to paint and that the use of “cold colours” increased her pain.

This is certainly not the first case of brain injury leading to the sudden development of an artistic ability.  It seems, however, to be the first report of a rather unusual synaesthesia (syn: together, aisthēsis: sensation) or association between using colour and experiencing pain. It appears that this stroke has somehow allowed for the formation of a link that should not normally exist.

Synaesthesia is now recognised as a real neurological phenomenon. The usual examples involve a person experiencing sounds or numbers in colour. Sensations that would normally be quite separate appear to suddenly coincide. Logically, then, it is thought that brain pathways that normally are kept separate and activated discretely are in fact triggered simultaneously in the synaesthete. Perhaps this is due to a failure of pruning of pathways during development or (more likely in this case) a lack of inhibition. This (un)lucky woman sustained damage to the left part of her brain. It is likely that this stopped the effective inhibition of the right side parietal lobe and ‘hey presto’ she became an artist. Somehow pathways were crossed and the artist was also a synesthete.

What this does show us is the rather powerful effect that our brain has on what we are.  If it is predominantly about the brain and how it fires, then perhaps one day, every Joe and Joanne will be able to have their brain stimulated to reveal an artistic streak for an hour or two. It also possibly tells us something more about the vast differences in the way that people experience all sensations and pain.

About Luke

Luke is a PhD student with the Prince of Wales Clinical School at the University of New South Wales. He is researching some of the factors that play a role in the development of complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS).

Thomas-Anterion, C., Creac’h, C., Dionet, E., Borg, C., Extier, C., Faillenot, I., & Peyron, R. (2010). De novo artistic activity following insular–SII ischemia Pain DOI: 10.1016/j.pain.2010.04.010

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