A small variation in a single gene makes the difference when it comes to how much pain you can stand. This gene makes catechol-O-methyl transferase (COMT), an enzyme that cleans up the brain chemical linked with pain sensation. A guy who can take a lot of pain?maybe an NFL player or a professional boxer?will have a different form of the gene than someone who wimpers whenever he skins his knee.

Researcher Jon-Kar Zubieta found that people with an active form of COMT felt less pain, while people with the less active type felt pain more acutely. Those with both forms of the gene, a different one from each parent, experienced a medium amount of pain when injured. When testing people’s pain thresholds, Zubieta found that,”Depending on the genotype you got?which had lowest, intermediate and highest activity?people had a gradation in response.” He says a quarter of the population are pain sensitive types, a quarter are stoic types, and half are in-between.

How much of what we experience is really inside our minds?

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