December 7, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College


We have all suffered the unpleasant sensation of pain, whether it’s caused by the intense throbbing of a stubbed toe or through deep emotional anguish. During years training as an elite artistic gymnast, I’ve experienced my fair share – after one awkward vault-landing my joints twanged and my back wailed. For seasons, I battled with excruciating pain until I finally surrendered to the pleading cries of my body. Since then I’ve endured frustration that such an injury prevented me somersaulting through life, and it’s left me wishing I could lead a painless existence. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be free of pain forever?

The concept of pain and the future of pain relief are explored in the exhibition Pain Less: the future of relief at the Science Museum’s Wellcome Wing and, although it doesn’t feel like it, pain is both an important and beneficial sensation. The exhibition is small gallery but it’s packed with engaging material cleverly presented using a variety of mediums. The combination of interactive touch screens and films, alongside the presentation of objects and information plaques provide a modern and simple display that leads the visitor through a short, thoughtfully-planned story sequence.

The exhibition opens with the significance of neuroscience and the vistor discovers the powerful affect our emotions, memories and expectations have on our perception of pain. The placebo effect is described along with how it can drastically change the extent of our sensation of pain via mere suggestion. This research reveals that psychological therapy could play a big part in the future of pain relief and alter the manner in which doctors discuss pain relief with patients.

Next we meet Peter, an amputee suffering from relentless phantom limb pain, who has sought pain relief through a variety of medications. Nothing worked and his hopes of a pain-free life seemed futile. Nevertheless, the wonders of technology may have found a cure: using a simple virtual reality game, Peter has found an effective treatment and is finally pain-free for a couple of days a week.

Life is very dangerous for people who can’t feel pain. Steven enlightens us on the risks of the SCN9A genetic mutation by recounting extraordinary and shocking tales of a painless life. Despite the worrying nature of this mutation, it has led to the fascinating potential of venom as a new wonder drug in the next generation of painkillers.

The exhibition closes with an emotive film produced by individuals who artistically express their personal thoughts on pain. The creative interpretations and poetic discourse produce a fluid succession of beautiful images, forming a moving and charming feature. It is a deep and thought-provoking end that encourages reflection.

From now on, I’ll listen to pain and appreciate the warning signals of my body’s protector. As the exhibition shows, it’s nothing more than foolish fantasy to see the inability to feel pain as a cool superpower.

Pain Less: the future of relief is a free special exhibition featuring in the Wellcome Wing in the Science Museum until 30th June, 2013.