I often say that there are two things that are unavoidable in life besides death and taxes and those are stress and pain. Pain is prevalent, be it physical pain and/or emotional pain. So we can all relate. But what if we could use our minds to change our brains and actually relieve our perception of pain this way.
Jeffrey Schwartz is a psychiatrist and researcher in the field of neuroplasticity and has written on Mindfulness and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. In a 2006 article titled “Plasticity in Brain Processing and Modulation in Pain” with Donald Price and Nicholas Verne, they said:
When sufficient attention is focused on the experience of pain relief, the associated brain circuitry becomes dynamically stable. This acute effect of focused attention can then enable the well-validated principle of Hebb (1955), namely that repeated patterns of neural activity can cause neuroplastic changes and new connectivities to form in well-established neural circuits (‘‘cells that fire together wire together’’). This type of attention-based mechanism of neuroplastic change has been termed self-directed neuroplasticity to emphasize that alterations in CNS function can be readily driven by and dynamically modified by willfully directed mental events (Schwartz and Begley, 2002; Schwartz et al., 2005). As was stated above, mental events change the activity of the brain in a dynamic manner. Basic principles of contemporary physics now enable us to place this empirically well-validated fact within theoretically coherent, scientifically grounded, and technically described context.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) was first designed as a systematic program to work with Chronic Pain. Perhaps the people who have taken that course actually changed their brains so that their perception of their pain has changed. That would be truly amazing, and if that’s true, we can all take a step back, pause and sit in awe that we have the power to change our brains.
Here’s the rub: In a recent post Neuroplasticity: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, I discussed how we can also place our attention in ways that change our brains in the direction where we perceive greater pain. In other words, what and how we place our attention affects the growth of our brain, which then automatically shifts our minds and vice versa in a cycle.
So when it comes to our pain, it’s important to pay attention to how we’re paying attention to our pain. Are we damning it or trying to ignore it? Research has shown that bringing the attitudes of mindfulness (e.g. beginner’s mind, non-striving, letting be, etc. …), all serve to change our perception of pain. So can this then, in effect, change the way our neurons fire automatically so the perception of pain lessens? That’s what neuroscientists are saying.
What do you think? Please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction provides a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.