Pain literally is in your mind, according to neuroscience. If you touch a hot toaster with your arm, you feel the burn through the sensory receptors in your arm, but the experience is actually regulated in your brain. According to the research, the intensity and importance of the pain are controlled directly through the frontal portion of the brain. The brain can shut off your perception of pain when it’s a distraction (for example, if you stub your toe while fleeing lava, you might not notice).
Emotion impacts the intensity of the pain, as well; stress, fear, or loneliness can aggravate the intensity of pain, while comfort, security, or the feeling of being among friends can lessen it. Fortunately, this new understanding of the pain/brain link points towards some promising new treatments for pain.
Modern advances in imaging the brain are responsible for many of the current breakthroughs. One of the more intriguing breakthroughs comes from a 2005 experiment which uses brain imaging to convert brain imagery and pain into something like a video game. In the experiment, volunteers were given a (temporarily) painful injection while receiving a brain MRI. The MRI was mapping the blood flow to a portion of the brain called the rostral anterior cingulated cortex (RACC), where it is believed that pain is processed.
The blood flow was then translated into an image of a flame that surged and dimmed as activity in the RACC increased or decreased. Using different mental techniques, the participants attempted to lower the size of the flame, and in most cases were successful, with a corresponding decrease in their experience of the pain from the injection. Volunteers who had no such interactive feedback did not reduce their pain.
Clearly that exact technique is not going to work. If nothing else, it’s not feasible to hang around the MRI. This line of research in the pain/brain connection, however, has also shown in a 2011 study that the pain/brain connection works both ways, that is, reducing pain benefits the brain. Looking at a broad region of the frontal brain, the study showed that brain abnormalities associated with chronic pain are reduced within 6 months of effective treatment.
The more the pain was reduced, the more the brain recovered, and it did not matter how. Unfortunately, this study also showed how difficult studies of the brain can be; despite years of research focus, it is still not clear that this area really does regulate pain or if there is a different mechanism entirely.
The hope is that by narrowing down the how of pain, one day simple techniques such as behavioral therapy may be used to treat it instead of more invasive measures like surgery. It’s also clear that while pain might be in your mind, there’s a reason our bodies are well evolved to try to avoid pain. Pain has real physiological consequences. Despite advances in the science of pain, it’s still best to avoid it entirely!