Graduate student studies the effect of music, suggestion on pain

Bella Vista, Ark. fifth-year doctoral candidate in the department of Psychology and Neuroscience Alisa Johnson studies how music and suggestion may influence a person's pain experience. Baylee VerSteeg | Multimedia Journalist

By Vivian Kwok | Reporter

Graduate students with the Mind-Body Medicine Research Lab study ways to reduce stress, anxiety, depression and other adverse health experiences. One student even researches a “non-formal, mind-body” intervention for reducing pain.

Bella Vista, Ark. fifth-year doctoral candidate in the department of Psychology and Neuroscience Alisa Johnson studies how music and suggestion may influence a person’s pain experience. Johnson said her background in massage therapy inspired her research.

“I’ve always been interested with reducing pain,” Johnson said. “When I came to the Mind-Body Medicine Research Lab, I really wanted to find additional ways to help reduce pain.”

Johnson said that not everybody can or wants to use massage as a method for pain relief. She also said she wanted to look at alternative ways to help people reduce pain without having to resort to medications that they may not necessarily want or tolerate well.

“I’m completing my doctoral dissertation right now, and my study includes an investigation of music and suggestion for experimental pain,” Johnson said.

Johnson said the scientific literature already supports music and suggestion as being helpful for reducing pain in most situations, but there is also evidence that they are not helpful in all cases.

“We’re trying to find out if there’s a synergistic effect between music and suggestion,” Johnson said. “So if you put the two together, does it become more beneficial?”

Johnson said participants will complete one session that lasts approximately two hours. She said participants will undergo two cold pressor trials, one with the intervention and one without the intervention.

“The results will be used and disseminated to the scientific evidence base so we can determine if this is helpful for pain,” Johnson said.

Johnson said she already completed a pilot study about the effect of music on seriously ill patients with chronic pain.

“We looked at the feasibility of the intervention and some pain outcomes,” Johnson said. “It was very well-tolerated. Everybody reported reduced pain and reduced pain bothersomeness.”

Johnson said the patients listened to a CD for 20 minutes. It played instrumental music along with suggestions to relax and to focus on the music.

“They showed amazing reductions in pain and how much the pain bothered them in their daily lives,” Johnson said.

Brunei fourth year clinical psychology doctoral candidate Ming Hwei Yek contributed to Johnson’s pilot study. Yek said as a research therapist she witnessed the impact of the music intervention from which the patients benefitted.

“It’s pretty incredible and amazing,” Yek said. “These are people in a lot of pain.”

Both Johnson and Yek encourage students to participate in research studies and to contribute to the scientific field.

“One of the big challenges of competing a dissertation is enrolling enough participants to complete your study,” Johnson said.

Johnson said she thinks students may not be aware of the significance of their participation in research studies. She said that the findings they get from research goes out into the larger research community, which helps further different studies.

“I think it’s important for students to understand that their contribution to these studies is not limited,” Johnson said. “There’s a ripple effect that occurs when they participate. It’s very much appreciated and it’s very much valued.”

Johnson said her study is only open for a limited time. Participation is open to most females between the ages of 18 and 45, and it is not limited to Baylor students. All participants will receive a $5 gift card to Starbucks. Contact Johnson at to schedule an appointment to see how music and suggestion may affect your pain tolerance.

“It works,” Johnson said. “We just have to get a critical mass of information out there to start changing the medical paradigm of how we treat patients.”