Multiple lines of evidence show that touch gating, an impairment in tactile sensitivity induced by pain, is a form of sensory rather than cognitive interference.
Touch gating, the attenuation of tactile sensitivity in the presence of pain, is a well-documented phenomenon, but its mechanism is unknown. The ability of pain to capture attention suggests that touch gating may be an example of distraction, but the fact that pain raises tactile but not auditory thresholds argues that touch gating is a form of somatosensory interaction. Therefore, the present study was carried out to determine whether touch gating is the result of sensory or cognitive interference. Touch gating was repeatedly produced by delivering a colocalized painful heat stimulus (45°C) during forced-choice measurements of vibration threshold on the palm. Noxious heat significantly increased thresholds compared with those measured at normal skin temperature, and this interference did not decline over the course of an extended series of experiments during which pain intensity significantly habituated. Touch gating was thus related to the constant physical intensity, rather than to the changing subjective intensity, of the noxious stimulus. For comparison, a form of unambiguously cognitive interference, the Stroop effect, was also measured repeatedly; it declined significantly across sessions, unlike touch gating interference. Finally, touch gating was not correlated with measures of participants’ distractibility, fear of pain, hypervigilance, or anxiety, variables previously found to influence pain on a cognitive level. Taken together, the results suggest that touch gating is a robust, stimulus-locked form of sensory interaction, rather than a transitory result of distraction or other cognitive processes.