Behind the Curtain of Pain Perception
Sociologist Andreas Schneider travels to Thailand on a Fulbright fellowship to research social support in pain management.
by Toni Salama
Scenic Route: Asia Via Europe
Every summer, Andreas Schneider pedals his way through 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 plains 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 hometown of some 12,000 people, 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 said. “It is a central skill necessary to compete in an increasingly global environment.”
On October 1, 2012, Schneider headed to Thailand where his Fulbright Award is allowing him to pursue his project “Social Support in Pain Management” in depth.
During the Vegetarian Festival, the Ma Song participate in fire walking and mild to extreme piercings. Click images to enlarge.
In lay terms, he wants to find out how the social environment of people changes their experience of pain. To study this he looks at the extreme cases of self-flagellation in which an audience provides a spiritual frame for practitioners to reinterpret their emotional experiences. What he learns from these studies is a general mechanism of how we can render (re-interpret) the experience of pain that might be applied as a coping technique for people who suffer chronic pain.
“The luxury of pain medication often bears significant side effects,” Schneider said. “If provided with appropriate social support, people can take pride in reducing medication and consequently render 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 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 creation of saint-like identities of the practitioner. Elevating one’s social status is a positive experience conductive to the reinterpretation of emotions in a more positive direction.
“The common rhythm of the flagellation whips apparently has two functions,” he explained. “First, it determines the timing in which the physiological impact is applied and hereby provides control of the process. Second, rhythm is conductive to achieving trance-like states.”
“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.” — Andreas Schneider
Positive interpretation and the experience of control are central mechanisms in the reinterpretation of pain. Such social mechanisms have physiological epiphenomena that are known in sports medicine. Pain itself triggers the production of endorphin that, as a morphine-like peptide, modulates the perception of pain within the central nervous system. Endurance athletes know this experience as the “second wind.”
“Obviously, these people used pain to achieve an altered state of mind,” Schneider said. “As a social psychologist, I focus on the socially supported positive identities that apparently 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 said 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 said.
What is going on in Thailand
His Fulbright fellowship in Thailand will, he hopes, help answer the question of how the social context supports the rendering of pain. Schneider is studying two populations.
In late October, during the Vegetarian Festival of the Ma Song, he was able to test whether the mechanism of rendering pain can be further generalized.
The Vegetarian Festival, held annually since 1825, is a 10-day period of cleansing, during which large parts of the Chinese immigrant community in Phuket, and increasingly elsewhere in Thailand, maintain a vegan diet. A smaller group, the Ma Song chosen by the organization of nine shrines, serves as media through which the gods are able to walk on Earth. During the festival the Ma Song publicly display their identities as chosen ones by participating in rituals, including mild to extreme piercings displayed in processions, fire walking and the climbing of high ladders with steps of blades.
“This research,” he said, “will give me the opportunity to substantiate my observations by asking the practitioners themselves how they interpret the event, their emotions and their identities.”
Schneider recently interviewed the participants in the shrines that organize the processions, inquiring and rating identities the Ma Song typically have in their ordinary lives and the ones that they experience during their self-induced ordeals.
“Following a symbolic interactionist approach of affect control theory, the quality of emotions is largely determined by the changes in identities that people experience,” he said. “If identities experienced during the event are substantially more positive than the ones experienced in the daily lives of the Ma Song, we can assume that emotions experienced during the event are likely to receive a positive interpretation. It is the social environment in the procession that provides positive identities for the Ma Song, who consequently alter their individual emotional experience.”
The challenge, he said, was to conduct interviews with the Ma Song during the time of the festival on the compound of the shrines while they were not occupied with festival activities or physically suffering from the aftermath of activities.
Phuket Provincial Cultural Office (l-r) Supatra (Patti) Supchukul, chair of the Department of Sociology at Burapha University; Thawichat Inthararit, chair and director of the Provincial Cultural Office of Phuket; Andreas Schneider; Ms. Urai, liaison. Click image to enlarge.
The other challenge, he said, was the application of a new measurement instrument. For his research, Schneider combined and modified two standardized social psychological measurement instruments. One instrument assesses the composition of the self-concept, while the other measures the subjective affective responses to the components of the self-concept. Not only is this the first time these instruments have been combined and used in the field, Schneider had to translate and modify these instruments to apply them under extreme conditions and for populations with limited literacy. Former collaborators of Schneider already indicated their interest in this new instrumentation that could vastly expand the scope of comparative data collections in the future. Schneider just successfully finished his first round of data collection with the Ma Song. Now data will be collected among the general Thai population and one Thai subculture. Once the data is translated, entered and analyzed, he can tell if this new instrument has the validity and reliability to be applied in the future.
During the festival, Schneider was able to document the piercing ceremony, the processions, the fire walking and the ladder climbing photographically. He was especially touched at his last day during the purification ritual, where thousands of devotees walked across a symbolic bridge to be stamped by the Ma Song with the seal of the nine emperor gods.
Because religious practices of minorities have been sensationalized through explicit images on the Internet, Schneider had to work a delicate process in obtaining the collaboration of the kingdom, the shrines and the Ma Song. The collaboration and support for his research in Thailand was overwhelming, he said.
The National Research Council of Thailand in Bangkok approved his application to conduct research in Thailand and informed the Phuket Provincial Cultural Office to support his case with the governor of Phuket and the presidents of the local shrines.
“Meeting all these people was half the fun,” Schneider said. “However, I was grateful when the chair of the sociology department of my host institution, Burapha University, Supatra (Patti) Supchukul, came to Phuket to support the research project. Communication was much easier. Patti’s presence was also instrumental in approaching the female Ma Songs, who were recently allowed to participate in most of the events in one of the temples.”
Maybe There's a Link
Schneider at Bang Neow Shrine with (l-r) Karudee Chotithamaporn, shrine PR manager, and her assistant; Shi Chen Ming, visiting honorary Buddhist monk from the Po Lin Buddhist Temple; and Prasert Fakthong, president of all Phuket shrines. Click images to enlarge.
Assuming the nature of the identities and emotions experienced by the participants match up with the ones hypothesized by his theoretical model, 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 spent some of his time among Buddhist monks. He said this 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 said. “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.”
About the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work
The Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work is part of the College of Arts & Sciences at Texas Tech. Research areas in the Sociology Program include demography, social psychology, family, gerontology, urban sociology, deviance, criminology, sociology of religion, minority relations, medical sociology. Faculty in the program also engage in interdisciplinary projects with faculty in other areas across campus.
Toni Salama is Senior Editor in the College of Arts & Sciences. Contributing author Kristina Woods Butler, Associate Director of Research and Academic Communications for the Office of the Vice President for Research. Images courtesy Andreas Schneider.