Acute pain impairs sustained attention.

Matthew K. Robison, Derek M. Ellis, Margarida M. Pitaes, Paul Karoly, Gene A. Brewer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Pain affects the lives of many individuals by creating physical, psychological, and economic burdens. A critical psychological factor negatively affected by pain is one’s ability to sustain attention. In order to better understand the effect of pain on sustained attention we conducted three experiments utilizing the psychomotor vigilance task, thought probes, and pupillometry. In Experiment 1, participants in acute pain exhibited overall poorer task performance. However, this effect was localized to the relative frequency and duration of the participants’ slowest responses with their faster responses being equivalent to a no-pain control group. In Experiment 2, we replicated the procedure and included periodic thought probes to overtly measure subjective experiences during the task. Participants in pain reported fewer “on-task” thoughts and more thoughts directed toward the source of their pain. In Experiment 3, we replicated the procedure while simultaneously tracking pupillary dynamics using an eye-tracker. Participants in pain had smaller task-evoked pupillary responses, which is thought to be an indicator of task engagement. However, the behavioral effects of pain from Experiments 1 and 2 were not replicated in Experiment 3. Taken together, pain led to poorer performance in the form of an increase in the relative frequency and extremeness of slow responses, increases in off-task thoughts, and reductions in a physiological indicator of task engagement. These data speak to theories of how pain competes with task goals for attention and negatively impacts behavior. The broader implications of this work are the identification of a low-level mechanism by which pain can interfere with normal cognitive functioning. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2021 APA, all rights reserved) Public Significance Statement—Given the fact that many people deal with either acute or chronic pain on a daily basis, it is important to understand the impact of pain on cognitive functioning. In the present study, we examined the effect of acute pain on sustained attention, and the findings indicated that pain can occasionally interrupt ongoing cognitive operations, manifesting in impaired cognitive performance. These attentional deviations could be extremely important in professions that require sustaining attention to important, continual streams of information like aviation (e.g., transportation security, air traffic control, piloting), health care professions (surgery, nursing), and safety monitoring (e.g., lifeguards, naval watchkeeping). (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2021 APA, all rights reserved)

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: Applied
StateAccepted/In press - 2021


  • pain
  • pupillometry
  • sustained attention

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology


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