Professor of the Practice of Law University of Denver Sturm College of Law

Aches, Pains, and Thinking

A sore neck, back pain, or a headache might impair your cognition.

Recent research examined the association between everyday pain and working memory performance in healthy adults.  Prior research has shown that pain interferes with executive function (planning and decision-making) and working memory (maintaining and manipulating information for short periods of time) in patients with chronic pain or in healthy research volunteers who experience pain (such as mild shocks) in the research lab.

Researchers analyzed data from 416 participants in the Human Connectome Project.  They studied pain intensity and performance on a working memory test over a 7-day period.  In the 228 participants who reported experiencing pain, the researchers found that higher pain intensity was associated with poorer performance on the working memory test.  Even low levels of pain hurt working memory.

Takeaway:  Healthy people with everyday pain may experience pain-related cognitive interference.  You may want to treat your everyday pain, rather than suffering through it, to maximize your thinking capacity.

Elizabeth Losin et al., Modeling Neural and Self-Reported Factors of Affective Distress in the Relationship between Pain and Working Memory in Healthy Individuals, Neuropsychologia, Jan 21, 2021,

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