I'm rather ashamed to say that this question is partly based on an episode of House.

I have previously heard that, if there are multiple simultaneous painful stimuli, the mind will only feel the sensation of pain from the most severe injury. A large amount of googling has turned up nothing and PubMed searches are proving tricky as I cant find the name of this effect (if it exists).

If it does exist, is the mechanism solely effective for pain signals or would we for example only feel cold at our coldest points (i.e. from the face or the hands rather than both) on a frosty morning?

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    $\begingroup$ "House MD" is one of the best series as regards the veracity of the medical observations. Whereas many cases are normally so rare that it is just improbably that House comes accross them, they all are usually ultimately correct as regards the symptoms, the course etc. The only series with a better medical background is "ER", but with every new season the proportion of the medical part was decreasing so dramatically that I just gave it up in the middle. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Galkin Jan 23 '12 at 13:44
  • $\begingroup$ When I get hip pain, it is so excruciating that the lower back pain goes away. As soon as my hip pain is relieved, the lower back pain comes back. $\endgroup$ – MARY Jul 21 '18 at 2:50
  • $\begingroup$ Pain is an associative cortical phenomenon, not a peripheral sensation. As with any cortical associative event, the experience of pain is dependent on attention, memory and prior experience. I may write an answer to this, but I'll have to dig a bit to find the relevant references. The way I like to think about it comes from Patrick Wall. I never met him myself, but Eric Kandel and John Brust have both quoted him to me as saying something like: pain is a need state that has more in common with hunger than somatic sensation or vision. $\endgroup$ – De Novo Jul 21 '18 at 3:12

Your question statement is a little bit incorrect or, better say, imprecise.

First of all it is not clear what you mean by the "body response" here? Pain is sensed by peripherial receptors (several types of receptors, mostly purinergic, are assumed to play role in pain preception) and then this sensation is propagated into CNS. So, the local "response to pain" (like swelling, increase of the blood perfusion) is not the response to the pain stimulus, but rather a methabolic response to the cell injures and release of many humoral factors like interleukins, "wound hormones" etc.

And this is true that out of many different pain inputs the one with highest intensity seems to "outshine" all other inputs and ultimately the pain perception is constrained to a single body part. However, if you consciously focus your perception on other parts of your body you may be able to percieve the pain originating from these parts even if this pain is lower.

This principle is known as a smaller particular case of a more general principle known as "the dominance principle of Ukhtomsky". Wikipedia has only the Russian language version about this principle (as well as about Ukhtomsky, a prominent Russian physiologist) and it seems to be not really known outside of the Russian scientific community (this is the only page I found about him in English).

The more general principle of Ukhtomsky postulates the following: one certain input may lead to the formation of the dominance center in the cortex. The domaninace center is characterized by the higher level of nerve cell excitation, whereas the rest of the cortex undergoes an inhibition so that different, even unrelated inputs converge here, helping this center to exist for longer time. The only way how this center can be ceased is to form another dominance center by a extremely high stimulus (for example a startle sound). Here the most insensive pain leads to the formation of such a center and all substantial pain stimuli just contribute to the persistence of this center: the pain is however percieved to originate from the place where the first stimulus, responsible for dominance center formation, originated from.

  • $\begingroup$ Is there any evidence that Ukhtomsky's postulate actually occurs? $\endgroup$ – yamad Jan 23 '12 at 17:38
  • $\begingroup$ @yamad Do you mean if the postulate has ever been proved or if it is applicable to this particular case with pain perception? $\endgroup$ – Alexander Galkin Jan 23 '12 at 17:41
  • $\begingroup$ I mostly interested if the postulate has ever been shown to be true in any case. Of course, I would also be interested if it happens to be applicable to the case of pain perception. $\endgroup$ – yamad Jan 23 '12 at 17:45
  • $\begingroup$ @yamad In Russian physiology this theory is considered to be proved. There is a classical book by Ukhtomsky (last edition was published in 2002) which describes his experiments with dogs which were used to prove the theory. There are numerous publications mentioning dominance principle in pubmed, but they are mostly in Russian. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Galkin Jan 23 '12 at 19:03
  • $\begingroup$ So would Ukhtomsky's principle apply for other sensations such as the feeling of cold? $\endgroup$ – Rory M Jan 25 '12 at 20:12

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