The disruptive effects of pain on n-back task performance in a large general population sample

Pain captures attention, displaces current concerns, and prioritizes escape and repair. This attentional capture can be measured by its effects on general cognition. Studies on induced pain, naturally occurring acute pain and chronic pain all demonstrate a detrimental effect on specific tasks of attention, especially those that involve working memory. However, studies to date have relied on relatively small samples, and/or one type of pain, thus restricting our ability to generalize to wider populations. We investigated the effect of pain on an n-back task in a large heterogeneous sample of 1318 adults. Participants were recruited from the general population and tested via the internet. Despite the heterogeneity of pain conditions, participant characteristics and testing environments, we found a performance decrement on the n-back task for those with pain, compared to those without: there were significantly more false alarms on non-target trials. Furthermore we also found an effect of pain intensity: performance was poorer in participants with higher intensity compared with lower intensity pain. We suggest that the effects of pain on attention found in the laboratory occur in more naturalistic settings. Pain is common in the general population and such interruption may have important, as yet uninvestigated, consequences for tasks of everyday cognition that involve working memory, such as concentration, reasoning, motor planning, and prospective memory.