Cognition & Cognitive Neuroscience PhD candidate Todd Vogel talks to In The Spotlight about the complexity of pain research and how other mental processes can disrupt our conscious processing of pain.
Research Area: Cognition & Cognitive Neuroscience
Faculty Supervisor: Dr. Mathieu Roy
Tell us a bit about yourself: I’m originally from a small town in Illinois, and my interest in psychology began after taking an introductory course in my final year of high school. I was hooked by the classic studies of psychology, like Asch’s conformity work, Latané and Darley’s work on the bystander effect, or Simons and Chabris’ famous “Invisible Gorilla” experiment, and I loved the nuances of seemingly simple behaviours. Learning why people behave in a certain way, in certain situations, and how various factors can drastically change the outcome has always fascinated me. So within my first year of attending a local community college, I began taking more courses in psychology and research methods. From there, I transferred to Southern Illinois University Edwardsville where I began developing my skills as a researcher and narrowing my interests to cognitive processes like attention and executive functions. After finishing my degree, I moved to Montreal to pursue my graduate studies at McGill where I’m currently studying how these processes help distract ourselves from pain and the different factors that affect this relationship.
Tell us about your research in three sentences or less: My current work seeks to understand the mechanisms involved in distraction from pain and how other processes can disrupt conscious processing of pain. For example, have you ever accidentally hurt yourself and not noticed it in the moment because you were too focused on something else? My research seeks to understand why this occurs and how things like motivation, reward, fatigue, and effort play a role in how we feel pain, particularly when the pain conflicts with other goals.
What excites you most about your research? I find conflicts between seemingly disparate processes in the mind to be super interesting. For example, how do pain and attention interact? How do the different parts of the brain talk to each other? How does all this information come together to make sense of the world and people around us? Trying to figure out ways of disentangling these processes to see how they relate and interact keeps things interesting and highlights the complexity of the brain and behaviour. I enjoy being able to ask “big picture” questions about human behaviour while simultaneously trying to solve the small, nuanced challenges associated with studying something so complex. The true joy comes from being able to talk about and share these ideas with other people, those “aha!” moments are the best!
Is there any recent or upcoming work you’d like to tell us about? I have a paper that has just been published at eLife that examines the decisions people make when faced with two unpleasant choices: physical pain or mental effort. Perhaps surprisingly, we found that people would sometimes prefer to experience high levels of physical pain in order to avoid exerting mental effort! These findings lend insight into research on pain, decision-making, and mental effort and suggest that “thinking so hard that it hurts” may have a bit of truth to it!
Given the choice between a mentally demanding task and thermal pain, which would you choose? Vogel and colleagues (2020) found that as the level of required mental effort increased, people were more likely to choose to experience pain. Conversely, as the level of pain increased, people were more likely to choose to exert mental effort. In this way, there is a trade-off between mental effort and pain, whereby people are willing to accept physical pain in order to avoid exerting mental effort.
Do you have an interesting random fact or statistic that fascinates you? I always found this one cool: Because there are 52! (≈8x1067) unique combinations of a standard deck of playing cards, any time you randomly shuffle the deck there is a nearly 100% chance that that specific combination has never happened before or will ever happen again.
What's your favourite thing to do outside of your research? Long walks on the beach, strolling under the moonlight, that sort of thing. But when I’m not living a romantic comedy, I enjoy exploring and biking around the city, playing guitar, hiking, and catching up with friends on a terrace in the summer.
What are your plans after leaving McGill? Following my interests is what got me here in the first place, so I plan to continue doing so by pursuing research and asking questions through a post-doctoral position and beyond, with the hopes of being able to continue learning and sharing ideas with others.
Do you have any advice for younger students in the Psychology Department? Talk to people, talk to people, talk to people. Talk to your professors, talk to graduate students, talk to your peers, talk to people outside of psychology about what you are learning/doing; all of these people can help you in some way. Professors can help you find your interests (like they did for me) and to start building connections, graduate students can help you understand things more in depth and can give advice on career paths, peers can help build friendships that motivate and sustain you through the journey, and people outside keep you grounded while also helping you see things from a different perspective. I’ve learned more outside the classroom than inside and would not be where I am today without these different experiences.
How can people contact you? I can be reached by email at todd.vogel[at]mail.mcgill.ca.