Violins and enhanced sensory maps

violin player

I recently learned about a fascinating study that I had to share with you all.  Researchers took two groups of people– professional violinists and regular, everyday people off the street– and pricked everyone’s index finger with a pin.  The violinists reported feeling much more pain than the non-violinists, even though everyone’s finger was pricked in the exact same way.

I thought this was so interesting.  This article on Optimum Sports Performance sums it up quite well (scroll down to the “Influence Psychology” section.  The author writes, “The enhanced sensory map and awareness of their hands that a professional violinist has makes them hypervigilant to anything that may be remotely threatening.”

I love this phrase “enhanced sensory map.”  They say practice makes perfect– well, all those hours and hours of practicing has given that violinist a very well-developed communication pathway between hand, spinal cord, and brain.  He or she is simply better at sensing what is going on in his or her hands.  Most of the time, that’s a good thing– it’s where the artistry comes from– but it’s not good when something is going wrong in that part of the body.

We are conditioned to think that “better” means tougher.  Practice is supposed to make us “stronger.”  We revere athletes for their ability to keep going despite pain.  We think only beginners and those who are not strong would let pain stop them.

In reality, it’s the “best” violinists who have the most awareness of their hands.  The more time a violinist has spent practicing, the better a musician he or she probably is- and the more sensitive he or she is going to be to an injury to the fingers.

I think that’s the reason I loved this study so much.  I’m so tired of the notion that pain somehow means you are weak, or a novice.  In the case of this study, it’s the seasoned individuals who have truly mastered a discipline who are the most likely to react strongly to the pain.

*****

This ability of our nervous systems to become better at the things we practice allows us to develop talent and mastery.  It also, unfortunately, allows us the ability to develop chronic pain.

When you go through a prolonged, painful physical event, it’s as if you’re giving your nervous system the chance to “practice” sending and receiving pain signals.  It responds by getting “better” at feeling pain.  This is what causes chronic pain– you end up feeling pain more easily, and have a lower pain threshold, than you did before.

I would like people to stop thinking of chronic pain as something that happens to those who are “lesser,” or as something that is outside of the realm of normal human experience.  Chronic pain is simply the other side of the coin that talent and mastery are on.

violin on side cropped

**I really hate the fact that I couldn’t provide an official citation for this study, but no matter how hard I looked, I couldn’t find one.  I believe the study was headed by David Butler and Lorimer Moseley, but I don’t know the year, or which institution they were affiliated with at the time.  They reference it in their book Explain Pain, as well as in various interviews I’ve watched online.  Sorry… I hate when people don’t cite things.  If you know anything more about where to find this study, please don’t hesitate to let me know!


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