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This exhibit was part of the exhibition FLEX which ran from 17 January – 24 November 2023.

Every day we get out of bed and we make decisions. We decide how risky things are based on our perception of the activity. And we decide how we feel based on the pain we are feeling.

We trust our brains to tell us if things are safe, or if something hurts. But perhaps all is not as it seems. How easily fooled are we?

The body and mind work together to make us feel pain. Test how by taking a seat in our pain chair. Will you brave the pain like the 50,000 people that came before you? Exhibited in our first exhibition MOD.IFY as part of the Feeling Human exhibit, these chairs were so popular we had to bring them back.

Can pain be shaped? Design your own 3D model and show us just how spiky a bee sting or broken wrist feel to you.

Sit back in our sound chairs and hear from Ngangkari healers about their experiences with chronic pain, and healing with their hands.

Speaking of hands, why don’t you put yours inside our MIRAGE machine? Watch as the natural assumptions about your body that your brain makes are manipulated.

Pain is one thing, but what about your risk of death. Everyday we engage in activities that are risky. What is riskier, sky diving or climbing Mt Everest? See how close your perceptions are.

Warning: This exhibit explores perceptions of pain and may cause discomfort for some people. Parental guidance is recommended. An element of the exhibit emits an electric shock which may interfere with implanted electrical devices such as pacemakers, all types of defibrillators, deep brain or spinal cord stimulators. This exhibit also uses lighting effects that may trigger a photosensitive reaction.

How good are we at figuring out what’s risky?

If you ask a scientist what a risk is, they might say its “hazard times exposure equals consequence.” But, for the typical person a risk is the chance of something bad happening. What is bad, and how bad it is, is called risk perception. It’s something that we do every day. Lots of different things might affect how risky we perceive an activity to be. For example, you are less likely to perceive an activity as risky if you have done it before.
UniSA researchers Professor Hannah Keage and Professor Tobias Loetscher found people could accurately judge which activities were riskier than others. For example, participants knew that climbing Mt Everest is riskier than anaesthetic use. However, relative difference was not as well understood by people. Climbing Mt Everest and skydiving might both seem risky, but climbing Mt Everest is so much more likely to go wrong, it’s 1,200 times more risky than skydiving.

How do the body and mind work together to make us feel pain?

Pain is a complex experience involving biological, psychological and social influences. Factors like expectation, belief, anxiety and attention can greatly impact how much pain is felt. For example, focusing your attention on pain can actually make it worse sometimes. Even attending too hard to some bodily sensations can actually make them painful. Conversely, distraction and re-directing your attention can be very good at reducing pain.
Anxiety and fear can also increase your level of pain. If an experience is framed in ways that are non-threatening, your limbic system, which helps to process our emotions, can reduce the amount of pain experienced.
On the other hand, if your brain is receiving sights and sounds that suggest you’re in danger, your pain will be heightened. This response to pain is highly sophisticated. it has evolved over millions of years to keep you safe.
The placebo effect is one of the best ways to show how belief and expectation can influence pain. Studies have shown that people experience pain relief after taking medication, when really they took a sugar pill. The reduction in pain is due to their expectation that the pill will reduce their pain, and not the action of the pill itself. The same is true for the nocebo effect. This is where people experience pain due only to their expectation that they will feel pain.

How is pain culturally dependent?

Now we know that pain is highly dependent on context, how does culture play a part in this? 

In the Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara (NPY) Lands, Ngangkari healers have worked for thousands of years, looking after people’s physical and emotional health. Ngangkari use their hands to work on their patients. They align body and spirit to remove pain or obstruction in the body.
This healthcare is gaining momentum in places otherwise dominated with Western methods. Ngangkari are now working at the Royal Adelaide Hospital and rural clinics. Their work is becoming recognised as having an important role in wellness for all patients.

Transcript for Pushing Perception here.

Transcript of the NPY Ngangkari Traditional Healers here.

Audio description:

A wheelchair sympol, an open caption symbol, a hearing loop symbol, and an Audio Description symbol.

View of the gallery with visitors, visible are some chairs
View of the gallery


3D models of pain that look like small spherical spiky objects
3D models of pain


Visitors interacting with the risk judgement station by pulling levers up to reveal micromort rating of different activities
Visitors interacting with the risk judgement station


A visitor using the pain chair
A visitor using the pain chair


A visitor using the pain chair to rate their pain from electric shock, heat probe
A visitor using the pain chair