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Pain and stress, not the first association you have when it comes to festivals. Okay, admittedly finding a good place for your tent when you arrive can be quite stressful. Or that one beer too many from the night before that is giving you a headache as you walk across the festival grounds. But beyond that, let the fun begin! Nevertheless, Imec Nederland will be testing how to measure pain more accurately during the Lowlands music festival in Biddinghuizen. After all, everyone experiences pain differently. “At the moment, doctors ask patients to indicate how much pain they are experiencing on a scale of 1 to 10.” says Jolanda Bax-Witteveen, project leader of this study at Imec. “It is only a snapshot and that kind of figure is very subjective. There are also patients who are not able to quantify their pain properly or who are unable to express themselves well enough. Think about children, elderly people with dementia or people who have just woken up after an operation. It is difficult for doctors to assess these patients.”

Bax-Witteveen points out that everyone reacts differently to pain: “It is something that is emotional, but there is also a physical response to a pain stimulus. You can sweat more or your heart rate changes. We want to discover exactly how this works.” In order to find out, the participating festival-goers have to feel real pain. Tucked away in a corner next to the Alpha Tent on the festival grounds, participants are subjected to pain in the name of science. They put their right hand in a bowl of ice water which has a temperature between 0 and two degrees Celsius. For a maximum of three minutes – or less if the pain is no longer bearable. Because what feels like an 8 for one person, someone else might call a tenuous 6. Participants are given a digital watch full of sensors in order to measure how they react to pain. Their heart rate, heart rate variability and skin response are all tracked. All collected data is stored anonymously. The data cannot be traced back to a person.

Putting on the best poker face

The first participant takes a seat in one of the two rooms in the tent. His face is covered with three electrodes above his right eye. Not in order to electrify participants with additional pain stimuli – these sensors actually measure eye movements and muscle tension in the face. “When you feel pain you tend to brace yourself,” she says pointing to the subject. This test subject does not bat an eye, he keeps his hand in the cold water for three minutes without moving a muscle. But is he acting? – Or is the ice water really not bothering him? “Eye movements and tense muscles are able to say something about how people react to pain too. But because everyone reacts differently, we ask some of the people to keep their faces as straight as possible. They have to put on a poker face and try not to show any of the pain that they may be experiencing.” These researchers hope to develop a model this way that is a useful addition to rating pain.

Up ahead, someone is working on mathematical sums under a time constraint. He has headphones on his head that emit a loud beep when the answer is wrong. “Nice and loud, in order to raise the pressure a bit more”, Bax-Witteveen explains. The researchers also encourage other participants to yell out encouragement there. This is how Imec tests how people react to stress and whether this reaction is similar to the reaction to pain. “Emotional pain can also be stress. But does the body react in the same way to this? We want to do a comparison to see if pain and stress cause the same reactions.”

Pass the alcohol screening first

Before festival visitors are allowed to participate, they must first pass the alcohol screening. As anyone who has drunk (too much) is not allowed to participate. “Consuming alcohol means you are able to tolerate more pain, we know that and so we don’t have to research that.” During Lowlands Science, Bax-Witteveen thinks that the seven researchers can inflict pain on about two hundred people and measure their reaction to it. “The more the better, of course, but with this number we have a database that is large enough to be able to make some significant conclusions. We’re going to make it easy, the atmosphere here is fantastic and people are very enthusiastic about freeing up a bit of time for science.”

Research carried out by Imec during the festival is part of Lowlands Science, where along with the Imec pain test, all kinds of other scientific experiments will be carried out. Here is an overview (in Dutch) of all the various experiments.