May 24, 2006
Opening Your Mind
This week's New York Times Magazine section had a very interesting article on the interaction of the mind and the brain under the title "My Pain My Brain." It attempted to address the incredibly complex and thorny of issue of how the mind and brain are connected and can that connection be utilized for our benefit, in this case in particular, to relieve chronic, debilitating pain? Since many of us suffer from chronic pain in one way or another, especially as we age, this is a critical point.
The author of the article, Melanie Thernstrom, is herself someone who suffers from such pain and so she was obviously very interested in the brain research lab of Dr. Sean Mackey of Stanford University, where a new machine, an f.M.R.I. is used to give real time movies of what is happening in one's brain, i.e., what particular parts of the brain light up under different circumstances; in this particular instance, what happens to the brain of someone in constant pain.
While that in itself would be a wonderful breakthrough, the added feature here was that the person could watch a representation of what was happening in their brain and then use imagery to see if they could not change the experience. The results were very encouraging indeed. The author was able to achieve a real relief from her pain affliction by training herself to associate her pain with imagery that essentially canceled out the pain impulses, or better to say, trained the brain to ignore the pain so that it never became an actual felt experience.
Now it is possible for people to utilize this technology for ongoing and permanent relief from their pain. What is key is the training of the mind to alter the perception of pain. Now therapists have known for a long time how to do this, as for example with hypnosis. In the middle of the 19th Century, a Scottish surgeon working in India performed thousands of operations without any anesthesia by using the power of suggestion alone. The trick is that the person has to believe in what they are doing, and believe in the person who is guiding them, if another person is involved in the therapeutic process. In this particular setup with pain, the pain was represented on a screen as a flame which was higher with felt pain, but grew lower if you were able to use your mind and appropriate associated imagery to lower the flame, or extinguish it altogether. Once you acquired that capability and then reinforced it with a period of intense training, then your brain literally was changed and began to automatically edit out the unwanted physical input.
What was even more exciting was the possibility of transferring this approach beyond pain to the reduction of other kinds of physical problems and then on to psychological issues like depression and anxiety disorders. So be on the lookout for real time neuroimaging as it is called. It could very well help to open your mind and help you to teach yourself how to put out the fires of discomfort and perhaps much more. Let me know what you think.
Frank Mosca Ph.D. is a life coach and marital counselor with a practice in Hampton Bays and Garden City. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and at his website featuring workshops at puttingmindsinmotion.com.