Schneider's Fulbright Award Takes Him 'Behind the Curtain' of Pain Perception
Written by Toni Salama
Scenic Route: Asia Via Europe
Every summer, Andreas Schneider pedals his way among the university towns in the uppermost corner of Baden-Wurttemberg, the state in southwestern Germany known for the Black Forest, the Odenwald and the invention of the automobile.
His base is the small city of Ladenburg, about equidistant—that is to say 6 or 7 miles—from Mannheim to the west and Heidelberg to the southeast. A world traveler from his early 20s, Schneider became a factory trained Mercedes mechanic to fund visits with the Aborigines in the vast planes of the Australian Outback, and work his way through Southeast Asia back to Europe.
Yet for all his wanderings, Schneider, Associate Professor of Sociology in the College of Arts & Sciences’ Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work, takes pride that his home town of some 12,000, snuggled against the Neckar River, has kept its medieval comeliness without having been trampled by the tourist trade.
In Ladenburg’s town center, he and his wife entertain colleagues in the 16th century house they had remodeled. And from here, they make academic forays not just to the nearby universities in Mannheim and Heidelberg, but to those farther afield: Konstanz, Bielefeld, Gottingen, Bremen, Hamburg and the Sorbonne in Paris.
Ultimately, each trip, every encounter with unfamiliar customs and values, pays off in the classroom.
“Cultural sensitivity is not just a matter of political correctness," Schneider says. "It is a central skill necessary to compete in an increasingly global environment.”
In October, he will head to Thailand and an area of study that a Fulbright Award will allow him to pursue in depth: “Social Support in Pain Management; Cross-cultural Perspective in Social Problems.”
In lay terms, he wants to find out how individuals perceive and manage pain, especially during public displays of self-inflicted torment such as flagellation. What he learns from these studies just might offer a new coping technique to those worldwide who suffer chronic pain.
“The luxury of pain medication often bears significant side effects,” Schneider says. “If provided with appropriate social support, people can take pride in reducing medication and consequently render [re-interpret] their experience of pain.”
Schneider first became interested in pain perception and management in the 1980s, when his travels took him to Kataragama, Sri Lanka. During a festival held by the indigenous Vedda communities, he observed rituals that included fire walking and suspension by flesh hooks.
“How can people endure such pain,” he wondered, “and why do they do that voluntarily?”
Pain became a puzzle he continued to work as a scholar. “While my major comparative research focused on German-North American comparisons in management (authority) and deviance (authoritarianism and sexuality), some of my comparative works started to involve Asia,” Schneider said. “Collaborations in Japan and invited visits during my sabbatical at Singapore Management University and Chulalongkorn University, Thailand, supported the development of my methodological and applied work using a global comparative perspective.”
Schneider realized that for his observations to move forward, he needed to find a common dynamic that would apply across cultures. He got his breakthrough in the Philippines.
In 2008, Schneider went to San Fernando, Pampanga, to document the annual Easter ritual as practiced by certain devotees in the Philippines: a procession of self-flagellation and submission to temporary crucifixion.
The Perception Connection
“What I discovered in my observations in the Philippines was a blueprint of a mechanism that people use to reinterpret pain,” Schneider said. He found that onlookers played a vital role in the process, as did the common rhythm of the flagellation whips. “There was also an apparent trance-like state of the flagellants. It is apparently the rhythm that is conductive to trance, which facilitates the endurance of pain,” he said.
“Another physiological source of trance seems to be pain itself, which induces the production of endorphin.” Schneider describes endorphin as a morphine-like peptide in the brain that modulates the perception of pain within the central nervous system.
“Obviously, these people used pain to achieve an altered state of mind,” Schneider said. “As a social psychologist, I understand that the public nature of this display must play a key role in the process of rendering pain into a positive experience.”
Focusing on the social and psychological aspects of these processions, Schneider says he now asks: "Why do people engage in the public display of painful procedures?" Or, more specifically: "What role does the audience play in the reinterpretation of pain?"
“An altered state of mind begs for a new interpretation of the situation, and the audience is like a mirror in which we see the reflection of our identity,” Schneider says.
What Waits in Thailand
His upcoming Fulbright fellowship in Thailand will, he hopes, help answer those questions. He’ll be studying two different populations.
During the Vegetarian Festival of the Ma Song, Schneider said he will test whether the mechanism of rendering pain can be further generalized. Ma Song rituals include activities such as piercing the cheeks with multiple swords and climbing ladders made of knives.
“This research,” he said, “will also give me the opportunity to substantiate my observations by asking the practitioners themselves how they interpret the event, their emotions and their identities.” He said he will query the participants before and after the procession—to name and rate the identities and emotions they typically have in their ordinary lives and the ones that they experience during their self-induced ordeals. "The ratings of the affective responses toward the identities and emotions provide the quantitative aspect for testing the model," he says.
He expects to find that participants experience not only an altered state of mind, but an enhanced identity, in part because an audience is present. “What under ordinary circumstances would be experienced as pain,” Schneider said, “becomes a positive emotion like pride.”
Maybe There's a Link
Assuming the nature of the identities and emotions experienced by the participants match up with the ones hypothesized by his theoretical model, then Schneider will have found support for the affective mechanism—the “how”—in the relationship between social support and pain perception.
While in Thailand, Schneider also will spend some of his time among Buddhist monks. He said this will put him in a unique position to scientifically investigate the monks’ use of mental or mediation techniques that control pain and create trance-like states.
If Schneider finds that the trance-like state of the monks and that of the Ma Song practitioners are compatible or even mutually conductive, then meditation might be an alternative technique for pain management.
“Studying the social process of rendering pain in different populations and situations allows a generalization central for applying the mechanism to render pain in a therapeutic context,” Schneider says. “If my findings are validated in Thailand, and if they are generalizable to different populations, they might be helpful for support groups of people who suffer from chronic pain.”
The Buzz on... Schneider
“Through Dr. Schneider’s vast experience with many cultures and cultural practices, I have been able to look at the behaviors of other cultures with a more open mind. Being a Texan all my life, [I find] we tend to have a narrow opinion of other cultures, especially when the behaviors of those cultures are different from our own. I have found through my experience in Dr. Schneider’s class, a new outlook on other populations, and I am able to study these behaviors with more objectivity.” —Amanda Romero RN,CCRC (BS Home Economics Education, TTU 1978; Master's Candidate, Forensic Science TTU)
“Dr. Schneider’s fieldwork and travels were a constant source of information (and let’s be honest, entertainment) throughout the seminar; but more importantly, they vivified the topics we were studying, and helped bridge the gap between theoretical 'understanding' and lived experience.” —Amanda Silbernagel (Master's Student, Philosophy TTU 2011-12)
"I was at somewhat of a block with my research, looking for a more interdisciplinary solution, and so I took Dr. Schneider’s class on social deviance. His class opened up possibilities within my research that I wouldn’t have thought possible prior. With his perspective and help I am taking my research paper for his class and working at getting it published as a sociological article."
—Tom Turner (BFA Studio Art, McMurry University 2002; MFA Candidate, Photography TTU)
“Dr. Schneider readily approached all social issues from a multicultural angle, demonstrating that choices both at the individual and structural levels do not occur in a vacuum. For any student, this approach bears consideration, for even as simple a purpose as understanding how one's personal choices reflect one's own culture.” —Sofia T. Symcox (BA Sociology, TTU 2012; MA Candidate, Sociology TTU)
“The multicultural approach Dr. Schneider employs in his teaching and research has helped foster in me a greater sensitivity to the subtleties required for good theory-making. In all of the topics covered throughout the course, Dr. Schneider was intentional about incorporating examples, and counterexamples, drawn from a wide variety of cultural contexts. As a result, students learned to appreciate the limits of the theories and methods discussed—an awareness that is crucial for any theorist, but which is often neglected in formal education (even at the graduate level.)” —Amanda Silbernagel (Master's Student, Philosophy TTU 2011-12)
“The fact that Dr. Schneider is well-traveled ... improves the learning experience with photographs and personal accounts of his travels. He presents these accounts in a non-judgmental way, which aids in the overall perception of his teachings.” —Amanda Romero RN,CCRC (BS Home Economics Education, TTU 1978; Master's Candidate, Forensic Science TTU)
"Prior to taking Dr. Schneider's Juvenile Delinquency course, I was a political science major planning a career in criminal law. Dr. Schneider was both passionate and knowledgeable about the subject, and, even more importantly, demonstrated that such far-reaching social issues must be approached at the structural level. I realized the good I wanted to do on the individual level (incidentally, for juveniles) in criminal defense, I could do on a systemic level in a career in sociology." —Sofia T. Symcox (BA Sociology, TTU 2012; MA Candidate, Sociology TTU)