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Does Your Brain Have an Effect on Your Pain?

  [ 41 votes ]   [ Discuss This Article ]
By Celeste Cooper, RN • • July 30, 2013

Did you know our reactions to pain get catalogued in our brain? It doesn’t miss a beat. Some say "yes it does" because the brain does not react to chronic pain the same way it does to acute pain.  Hmmm, read on and you will see why I believe that is thinking INSIDE the box. 

Neuroimmaging allows us to see how the brain is functioning and it is used in studying pain. This technology could prove to be a valuable tool for the clinical setting and not just for research.  Neuroradiologists may never be able to use brain mapping to read our minds – gosh I hope not – but it could expose evidence on how our brain orchestrates positively or negatively in regards to therapies and medications.

As the creators of neuroimmaging explored visual trajectories, operating systems, and codes, the scientists were not thinking inside the box. They took the physical exam of brain function and changed it into a movie theater exploding with light forces of what happens in the brain. They were able to see things from a totally different perspective.

Because the brain is very complex, any of us – in pain or not – are at risk of getting stuck in any grieving process by our catastrophic thinking.

Michael Michalko has written a brilliant book, Putting Your Imagination to Work: CREATIVE THINKERING.

He says, “You cannot will a new idea.” I agree with that. We cannot “Will away” pain either, but we can act on it. Among many of Michael’s thought experiments, one struck me specifically.  How could I relate creative thinking to my internal thoughts on pain? Here is his “Thought experiment:”

  1. While sitting at your desk in front of your computer, lift your right foot off the floor and make clockwise circles.

  2. Now, while doing this, draw the number 6 in the air with your right hand.

  3. Your foot will change direction.

I tried this several times and I looked like a flailing bird doing an out-of-control nose dive. That was the BEST I could do. By golly, he was right; our brain does respond in a categorized way. He says this about that.  “Suppose you want to improve the flashlight.  If you compare it to other flashlights, you are thinking inside the box. Instead conceptually blend your thinking patterns by comparing a flashlight to a garage door opener.”

I “thought” about this and concluded that by conceptualizing pain over and over again in the same way, we lose our ability to be creative. There are a great deal of learned behaviors, even by experts, comparing acute pain to chronic pain. Conceptually it makes sense, but creatively it is completely off base. We should think differently about pain, instead of putting it in its neatly tied up box of negativity. When I compared contrasts and similarities of what my pain perception is to a tree, it changed the way I think about it.

OK, print this off and get creative.   Use your own object, or animal, whatever. Be creative. See if this exercise works for you.

I am not oblivious.

A person in the throes of a migraine, vomiting to the point of exploding blood vessels in their face, can hardly get a grip on conceptual versus creative thinking, (been there), but could comparing a migraine abstractively change future perceptions?  As a migraineur, I do know that certain parts of my brain WAKE UP, even while holding onto the commode. (Maybe that was too visual). I come up with some of my most creative ideas at a very adverse time. I compare myself to Picasso, and that somehow makes me feel better about it all.

The research taking place in neuroscience is exciting, and I write a great deal on healthy coping and ways to defer pain thoughts. I ask myself, “Has the human brain become plastic due to human evolution over decades or centuries? Can we transform this phenomenon?” We should also take great care and tread very lightly, but I think we should tread.

I suggest that we not put chronic pain in a box, like so many others have done, and not just for this exercise. It, too, can be a warning sign that something is physically wrong. For instance, something that has gone undiagnosed for three months to five years can cause “chronic pain.” Ignoring this can be dangerous thinking, too.

I found this particular analogy very enlightening. Leonardo da Vinci was born out of wedlock, and so he was not allowed into university. Mr. Michalko writes that da Vinci was able to enjoy fluidity of thought and his concepts were able to dance with one another, integrating information instead of segregating it – a polymath. Yet, Leonardo da Vinci is considered the greatest genius in history. Could we be boxing ourselves in by relinquishing our right to think creatively?  Wouldn’t you love a doctor that thinks outside the box too? 

Our brain, like it or not, is translating every word we say or think about pain.  We can’t control prejudicial words of others, those get catalogued somewhere. too, but we can change how we deposit our reaction to pain.  It is empowering to know we can think creatively. What we do with the information is totally up to us, but in the end, we are the only ones to benefit from it. So, next time someone says something unkind because they cannot understand your pain, maybe it would be best to just respond with, “Excuse me, you are interfering with my THINKERING.”


Celeste Cooper, RN, lead author of the Broken Body, Wounded Spirit: Balancing the See-Saw of Chronic Pain [Series] and Integrative Therapies for Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and Myofascial Pain: The Mind-Body Connection. (Co-author, Jeff Miller, PhD). Celeste is a fibromyalgia expert at Sharecare and a participant in the PAINS Project.

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