The Psychology of Pain
Hello! My name is Sam Rowbotham I am PhD student and Tutor in Psychology, spending half of my time on each of these. My PhD research focused on the hand-gestures we use when speaking and how these can help us to communicate about painful experiences (such as migraines, back pain etc), in the hope that this will improve communication between doctors and patients.
How did I get here?
After completing my A-Levels (Psychology, English Literature, and History) in 2005, I came to the University of Manchester to study Psychology, graduating in 2008. At the end of my degree I decided to stay at Manchester to complete a one-year Masters in Research Methods (Psychology) so that I could develop my research skills further. Following this I applied for a joint PhD and Teaching post (also here at Manchester) which I began in September 2009. Because my PhD is part-time it should take me six years to complete (rather than the usual 3-4 years) but I am hoping to finish it a year early! Along the way I have strengthened my research skills by completing a number of temporary Research Assistant posts, including one in which we looked at why doctors and nurses give people antibiotics for coughs and colds (despite the fact that these medicines don’t work for these illnesses!).
During my undergraduate degree I became fascinated with the
movements we make with our hands and arms when speaking – our co-speech
gestures. These gestures do more than simply express how we feel – they carry
information about the things we are talking about, such as the shape and size
of objects. However, researchers hadn’t really considered how people use these
gestures when talking about sensations such as pain – something we often find
quite tricky to describe. This is where my PhD comes in – I look at how these
gestures are used to describe pain and whether seeing gestures can improve
people’s understanding of other people’s pain. To do this I video-record people
talking about pain and then analyse the video data in detail, looking at how
many gestures they use and what kind of information these gestures contain
(e.g. about where pain is located and how it feels). I have also created short
clips of these pain descriptions which I play to other people to see what
information they can pick up from these gestures. A similar video can be seen on YouTube.
What impact will my PhD have?
So far my research has demonstrated that hand gestures contain lots of information about pain, a lot of which is not contained in the speech they occur with. If we can also show that ordinary people (i.e. not trained gesture analysts) can pick up this information (something I am studying now) then this is important for pain communication in medical settings. Hopefully, it will encourage doctors to be more attentive to gestures when talking to patients and therefore pick up more information about pain. This is particularly important as people often find it difficult to explain their pain to others: if we cannot explain pain, it can be difficult to get the right treatment.
My day-to-day routine
One of the things that I love most about my work life is that everyday is different. Because I teach alongside my PhD, some day I might be helping students to work through practical exercises in their statistics classes, teaching study skills to groups of 10-15 students, delivering nonverbal communication lectures to over 100 third year students, or marking essays and exams. When I am working on my PhD, my days change depending on whether I am collecting data (e.g. by interviewing participants or getting them to watch pain descriptions and answer questions), analysing data (e.g. looking in detail at video data on the computer), or writing up my findings for psychology journals. This means that although I am often very busy trying to juggle multiple things I am rarely bored – I wouldn’t have it any other way!
If you are thinking of studying Psychology at the University of Manchester then take a look at our website for more info, including comments and clips from present and past students. You can also check out our blog where you will find updates about what is going on in the department and the activities that staff and students have been involved in.
The British Psychological Society and the Brightside Trust also have lots of useful information about careers in Psychology. The British Psychological Society also has a great blog with regular posts about lots of aspects of Psychology.
If you are interested in finding out more about nonverbal communication there is a nice article here from The Psychologist magazine (published by the British Psychological Society). You can also find the slides for a recent presentation on my research here.