Exhibiting Pain

Pain is the one area of neuroscience that fascinates me endlessly. Back in 2009, I was finishing up my undergraduate degree and searching for a supervisor for my Master’s. I’d gained some great experience in an auditory neuroscience lab, and although I loved it, I wasn’t necessarily committed to that field. So as I scanned through hundreds of faculty member pages (at a few selected Canadian universities), I remained open to the possibility that a new topic might catch my fancy. When the word “pain” popped up for the first time, the proverbial light bulb turned on.

I wasn’t sure why I hadn’t heard much about pain research before. The truth is, asides from a few research hubs spread out across Canada, there aren’t that many investigators who study pain as compared to other neuroscience areas. Why is this? Maybe it’s because simplistically, pain is regarded as a symptom of various disease conditions – in many cases, treatment of the disease, rather than the pain, it believed to take precedence. Maybe it’s the lack of funding: as far as I’m aware, there are no Canadian charities that fund pain research (with the exception of arthritis charities). Contrast that with the UK, which has access to funding from a charity called the Pain Relief Foundation (based in Liverpool) and from a professional society, the British Pain Society (based in London).

Many aspects of this mysterious thing called pain are interesting: it’s subjective, (nearly) universal, and in normal situations, essential. But it can also change a life and simultaneously destroy it. So I chose to jump into pain research for my Master’s and moved to Halifax. I spent 2 hugely productive years in a pre-clinical pain research laboratory, where I learned more than I can possibly recount here. Ultimately, how I felt about my research was always centred on how I felt about the human aspects of pain, and I wrote about this in the Acknowledgements for my final thesis:

Just prior to my arrival at Dalhousie in the summer of 2010, the first thing that my supervisor, JS, suggested that I read was a book by Marni Jackson, entitled Pain: The Fifth Vital Sign. As JS put it, this book was an exploration of the question “what is this thing we know as pain?” That I was greatly moved and inspired by what I read is no understatement. This book opened my eyes to the profound impact that pain has on the lives of sufferers, and revealed many serious problems that affect the way that pain is treated (and recognized) in our society. Having these broad perspectives of pain kept me focused and motivated in my own research.

As crucial as pain research is, communicating the findings to the public is just as important. The book by Canadian journalist Marni Jackson was able to superbly capture the essence of pain and its issues, but admittedly, the audience for such non-fiction books is probably not huge. Sadly, then, the message is lost.

The situation is completely different when it comes to museums. Museum have the power to be interactive, engaging, vibrant, and therefore, memorable. A few weeks ago, I was delighted to learn that London’s amazing Science Museum was opening a new exhibit entitled “Pain Less”, primarily supported by the Wellcome Trust, along with The Royal College of Anaesthetists, and The Association of Anaesthetists of Great Britain and Ireland. I visited the exhibit last week, and was pleased with what I saw. Covering compelling topics like phantom pain and the genetics of pain, the small exhibit was richly-detailed and furnished with interactive displays, videos, and objects. The minimalistic design was gorgeous and striking, but never depressing.

The “Pain Less” exhibit at the Science Museum in London.

Without a doubt, the exhibit’s greatest strength was its ability to communicate highly complex scientific concepts in an interesting and clear manner. The videos showcased the deeply human stories of pain and its various facets, whereas an interactive screen provided a great, comprehensive explanation of major concepts, without shying away from scientific terminology. (A highlight for me was the great explanation of congenital insensitivity to pain; the text discussed voltage-gated sodium channels and the mutation in the SCN9A gene, which encodes the NaV1.7 channel.) By embracing and respecting the audience, rather than condescendingly “dumbing down” the content, the exhibit demonstrated that intelligent, well-explained, and sparse use of scientific jargon can be very effective.

One of the displays in the “Pain Less” exhibit at the Science Museum in London.

Of course, throwing around terms like “SCN9A” probably would cross more than a few pairs of eyes, and a science museum must consciously cater to a wide audience. Since there was some disturbing material, this exhibit was mainly geared towards adults. However, there was still one interactive activity that caught the attention of a few kids in the vicinity: a game called “Ouch”. Designed by students in a Year 9 science class (aged 13-14), the game is well-designed, cute (actually, is that appropriate for a serious subject like pain?), and Missile Command-esque, and players must protect the brain from incoming pain signals using various “weapons”: placebos, painkillers, general anaesthetics, and spider venom (a putative analgesic?). Since there was a queue of people waiting to play the game at the museum, I actually didn’t get my chance to try it out there. However, I was able to play the game online, which brings me to my final point…

The online material for “Pain Less” is a great adjunct to the exhibit. From the excellent “behind the scenes” blog to the availability of a large-print version of the display text, the Science Museum has given visitors a chance to learn more and read over what they might have missed, thereby enhancing the overall experience. The Science Museum deserves much respect for raising the profile of pain research, and for creating this marvelous piece of science communication.

“Pain Less” runs from 8 Nov 2012 to 8 Nov 2013 at the Science Museum (Exhibition Rd, South Kensington, London, SW7 2DD).

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