An exploration of pain science and art

Ed Keogh on his involvement in a public engagement project.

The Bath Centre for Pain Research, which is based at the University of Bath, has recently been involved in an art exhibition inspired by their work into the psychology of pain. We wanted to hold a public engagement event with the local community in the Bath and Bristol area to showcase our work and celebrate our ten-year anniversary as a research centre. Our research focuses on how pain affects us, and the lives we live; seeking to better understand the mechanisms, function and impact of pain, and to develop more effective ways to manage it. We explore the way cognitive, emotional and social processes are involved in pain; pain across different settings and groups, including children and adolescents; the evidence for pain treatment, assessing what works best and in what way.

As well as researching pain, we also seek to raise awareness about it and the role that psychology can have. This includes requires us finding novel and accessible way to start conversations about pain, what it means to people and how it affects their lives. One core theme is how pain is a personal and subjective experience, and finding ways to effectively communicate pain to others can be a challenge. This got us thinking about the different ways in which pain can be expressed and represented, which brought us to art. We reached out to Katie O’Brien who runs the 44AD artspace, which has a walk-in gallery that the public can visit for free, and is situated in the very centre of Bath. We applied funding from the University’s Public Engagement Unit, who were not only keen to see this project happen, but offered valuable support and guidance along the way.

We hosted a briefing event in January 2020 for about 25-30 artists, talking about our work on the psychology of pain. They took this all on board, went off to develop these ideas – creating a variety of pieces that explore the nature of pain and how it might be represented. They also suggested the name for the exhibition – Ouch! An exploration of pain science and art.

Due to the pandemic the exhibition had to be postponed several times from its original date of April 2020, although Katie was able to develop an online version during the second lockdown. We finally held the exhibition in the 44AD artspace for two weeks in early October 2021 – opening it up to the local community; talking to visitors about our work and why we had created the exhibition. An artist’s talk was also held, where those who had contributed to the exhibition explained the thinking and methods behind their work. Some of artists chose to represent their own experiences of pain, drawing on how pain had affected them in their lives. Others explored the links between mind, body and culture – considering the physical and psychological aspects of pain.

It was also a great example of a shared collaboration between pain researchers and the artists. As Katie O’Brien from 44AD explained at the start of the exhibition: ‘Art and science are both driven by curiosity and discovery and it has been an invaluable experience collaborating with Professor Ed Keogh and the Centre for Pain Research. The result being ‘Ouch!’, a showcase of artworks by 20 artists, visually interpreting the nature of pain, and the impact it can have on our lives. We hope that this exhibition will present individual stories in an engaging and accessible way, whilst collectively highlighting the work undertaken at the Centre for Pain Research.’

My colleagues and I found that the exhibition was an excellent opportunity to get people thinking about pain, what it is and how it affects us, and in a way that is both visually engaging and thought-provoking. As a pain researcher, it was such a highly rewarding experience to see your ideas being generated in such as creative way. I would highly recommend this as an activity for anyone interested in public engagement, and certainly one to repeat.

- Professor Ed Keogh is Deputy Director of the Bath Centre for Pain Research at the University of Bath

To find out more about ‘Ouch! An exploration of pain science and art’, and view some of the artwork, see www.bath.ac.uk/events/ouch-an-exploration-of-pain-science-and-art/ and tinyurl.com/kwetpud8

Image: Box Tc : 104 'Pain Signature' Melzack's Neuromatrix: A Maquetter for 'Ouch!', by Robert Lee.

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