Humans survive on this planet by the brain receiving ongoing sensory input from the environment and interpreting it as safe, neutral or unsafe. You will act accordingly to live another day. For pain, the brain “switch” has to be on in order to feel it. Acute pain is protective and necessary for survival. In chronic pain the “switch” remains on after the threat has passed. There is nothing useful or helpful about chronic pain and it can only destroy your life.
You can also stimulate pain by visualizing the circumstances that caused it or by just imagining it. You will hurt. (1) There is a well-known story in the pain world of a construction worker presenting to the emergency room in screaming pain after he shot himself in the foot through his work boot with a nail gun. The picture is impressive with the nail penetrating though from top to bottom. When they took his boot off the nail had passed between his toes and hadn’t caused any tissue injury. He wasn’t a wimp. When your brain senses danger and tells you to feel pain, you will feel it.
Why can a prize fighter or NFL football player take the punishment to the body at the level that they do? One fraction of the impact to any one of the rest of us, would create unimaginable pain. In that situation during the heat of battle, it would be more dangerous for “survival” to feel the pain. They are occasionally experiencing pain during the match, but not much.
Here is a small article I just ran across demonstrating how the brain can misinterpret sensory input. It is the answer from a teacher being asked the question, “What are some of your favorite ‘ice breaker’ exercises for students when starting a new school year?
“Smell the Peppermint”
My Psychology teacher put a jar of Peppermint Extract on the desk in the front of the room and removed the top.
“Raise your hand when you can smell the Peppermint.”
Sitting in the back row, it took me some time, and as I watched other hands being raised around me I started wondering if my nose wasn’t working properly. But then I caught the strong smell of Peppermint, and dutifully raised my hand.
At this point almost all hands were raised, and the teacher picked up the bottle and drank the entire contents to the expected gasps from the students.
“It’s only water.”
The “Power of Suggestion” lesson is one of the most amazing learning experiences I have ever had in a classroom.
To this day, I can still remember smelling the Peppermint.
Doc Brown, MA Education, Point Loma Nazarene University (1986)
Dr. Lorimer Moseley is a neuroscientist from Australia and has done much research on pain perception. One of his experiments involved placing an uncomfortable (safe) cold probe on the forearms of volunteers. Then measured the time they could tolerate the discomfort while they were looking at a red light or a blue one. They had a much lower capacity to keep the probe on their skin when looking at the red light. Their eyes had already registered some level of danger just by seeing red. Not only does the brain decide when a given stimulus is painful or not, it takes all sensory cues into account. Pain is not pain until your brain says it is so.
There is no separation of the mind and body. One cannot exist without the other. It is a unit. It is your whole body that is perceiving input and experiencing pain regardless of the source.
- Yarnes, B, et al. Emotional Awareness and Expression Therapy (EAET)Achieves Greater Pain Reduction than Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) in Older Adults with Chronic Musculoskeletal Pain: A Preliminary Randomized Comparison Trial. Pai Medicine, Oxford Press, 2020, manuscript.