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The science of pain.

How the body and mind manage pain.


Having one arm heated to a painful temperature, while the other arm is plunged into an icy cold
bath, would be an unpleasant experience for most of us. But as Israeli researchers discovered in a
recent experiment, it didnt much bother people accustomed to enduring discomfort.
In the study, published in the journal Pain in 2013, elite triathletes who were subjected to the
hot-and-cold treatment reported that they experienced pain, just as a control group of casual
exercisers did. But the triathletes, who were accustomed to pushing themselves to extremes in
their training and in competitions, rated the pain as lower in intensity and were able to tolerate it
longer.
Not only thatthey had greater ability than ordinary people to control their reaction to one
discomfort while they experienced another.

Why were the triathletes able to shrug off such an unpleasant experience? Had they hardened
their bodies through their intense training, or conditioned their minds not to fear pain? The
researchers believed that it was a combination of mind and body, working together. As Tel Aviv
University physical therapy professor
Ruth Defrin explained: "It is very difficult to separate physiology and psychology."
For centuries, philosophers debated about whether your mind and consciousness are part of your
body, or whether the two are separate entities. But today, thanks to science, we know that the
brain, the organ where your perceptions and thoughts take place, in many ways functions as a
unit with the rest of your body. In navigating the daunting complexities of the physical world,
your brain and body generally work together pretty effectively. But they dont always tell the
truth to each other. Your brain, which utilizes an array of shortcuts to keep its work load
manageable, is capable of deceiving the body into feeling and reacting to things that arent there.
Similarly, your body is capable of playing tricks upon your brain. In this article, well look at
how this continual game of mutual deception works.

Your Body and Brain Work Together Most of the Time


Mind and body are so closely intertwined, in fact, that they often seemingly operate in unison. In
an experiment published in Psychological Science in 2010, for example, University of Waterloo
researchers had 15 volunteers read a passage from a book on a computer screen, while a sensor
tracked their eye movements. At random intervals, the computer beeped, and the subjects
reported whether they were paying attention to what they were reading, or whether their minds
were wandering.
The researchers discovered an intriguing phenomenon. When the subjects minds drifted from
the task, they also blinked at a higher rate. "When you start to mind-wander, you start to gate the
information even at the sensory endingsyou basically close your eyelid so there's less inf
ormation coming into the brain," explained cognitive neuroscientist Daniel Smilek, one of the
studys authors.

Your brain, of course, is in control most of the time,


but picture it as a driver who finds his or her way by studying a roadmapin this case, mental
maps of the body and its various systems, which it uses to govern movement, sensation and
perception. The brain takes in the information provided by your senses, evaluates it, and tells
your body what to do.
Most of that decision-making takes place in the prefrontal cortex, or PFC, one of the most
highly-evolved parts of our brain. In the course of a day, it makes countless decisions, large and
small, from what to eat at lunchtime to whe you should step off the curb into the street.
Psychologists theorize that to make all those decisions manageable, your brain actually has two
decision-making systems, which are separate but closely intertwined. System 1 is a sort of
autopilot, which will take in information about a situation and act, based upon a set of rules that
are formulated by System 2, the ruminating part of your decision apparatus. System 2 monitors
system 1 and can override it if necessary, if System 2 detects that youre about to make a
dangerous mistake. The
process works so smoothly and seamlessly that we dont even notice it is running most of the
time.

Your brain, amazingly, ac tually can tinker with itself and make adjustments in order to be able
to perform a physical action more deftly. Harvard University medical researchers have
discovered, for example, that subjects who practiced a piano exercise over a five-day period
actually began to utilize a greater amount of their motor cortex, the area of the brains frontal
lobe that controls movement.
In turn, theres evidence that the rest of your body actually helps your brain to work more
effectively. A study by U.S. and Chinese researchers, for example, found that elderly Chinese
who practiced Tai Chi, a martial art converted into a slow, gentle exercise regimen, three times a
week show ed increases in brain volume and performed better in tests of memory and thinking,
compared to a control group.

A study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience in 2013 found that subjects who rode
bicycles four times per week performed better at divergent and convergent thinkingtwo mental
processes
involved in creativitythan did subjects who didnt exercise.
But your brain and body dont always work together smoothly. Your brain, as weve mentioned
previously, relies heavily upon ingenious shortcuts to deal with the continual onslaught of
sensory data that it has to process. Facial recognition, for example, is an activity thats long been
a crucial part of human existence, and your brain has an entire area, the fusiform gyrus in the

temporal lobe, thats assigned to identifying faces. You r fusiform gyrus does this efficiently by
breaking down a persons face into individual parts and then analyzing them. But to save time,
your brain doesnt bother looking at how each part relates to the other parts. Thats why, in
experiments, subjects who are shown an upside-down picture of recognized figures will identify
them without noticing that their eyes and mouth have been rearranged, so that theyre actually
right-side up.
When your hands have to do unfamiliar, opposite taskssuch
as making a gun gesture with your left hand and a hitchhiking sign with your right, and then
switchingyour overloaded brain may opt not to do both simultaneously. Instead, it will shut
down on hands movements for a moment in order to perform the other. This phenomenon is
called bimanual interference, and youve got to put in a lot of practice repetitions to overcome it
so that you can play the piano or type on a keyboard. Eventually, though, all those repetitions
will deepen your neural pathways, enabling you to routinely perform feats that once would have
seemed frustratingly impossible.

How Your Brain Can Be Duplicitous


Your brain has enough power over your body to make it react to things that arent actually real.
The amygdala, your brains early warning system for detecting potential danger, and
hypothalamus, a brain area which directs the pituitary and adrenal glands to release of chemicals
into your body to arouse the fight-or-flight response, also can give you false alarms. If youre
suddenly confronted by a harmless statue of a six-foot-tall snowmana scenario youll actually
see in the "Mind Your Body episode of Brain Gamesits likely that your amygdala and
hypothalamus will fire up the danger response and your body will unleash all of the physical
reactions that you would use to escape a real threat.
Your brain even can create feelings that might not even be generated by your senses, and trick
you into believing that they are real. Itchiness, for example, is triggered by a specialized neuron
that detects faint stimuli, such as a bug crawling on your leg. But that information actually is
interpreted in your brain. If you simply think about a bug crawling on your leg, youll feel
an itch and the urge to scratch it.

And as we noted at the start of this article, your brain can influence your body to reduce the
intensity of pain. In a study published in 2011 in the journal Anesthesiology, Stanford University
researchers found that subjects who trained themselves to think distracting thoughts or those who
re-evaluated their pain in positive terms reported significantly less discomfort. Brain scans
revealed that the subjects utilizing distraction showed increased activity in parts of the brain
associated with higher-level thinking, while the others had increased activity in the deep brain
structures that process emotion.
Your brain apparently even can influence your reproductive system. In a 2011 study published in
the journal Fertility and Sterility, researchers found that in-vitro fertilization patients who
learned relaxation and other stress-reduction techniques had a significantly higher pregnancy rate
(52 percent) than those who didnt (20 percent).

Your Body Has a Few Tricks of Its Own


Even though your brain is powerfully persuasive, its not as if your body always just goes
helplessly along for the ride. Studies of rodents, for example, have revealed that bacteria in the
gut can influence neural development, brain chemistry and a wide range of behaviors, including
emotions, pain perception and how the brain responds to stress. An imbalance between beneficial
and disease-causing bacteria can cause an animals behavior to change, making
it either bolder or more anxious.
Scientists also have discovered that the bodys position and actions can alter a persons mood.
After experimental subjects were asked to hold a pencil between their lips in a way that
compelled them to smile, they actually became happier, suggesting that the facial muscles
directly influence emotion. And in a 2003 study by Ohio State University researchers,
individuals who were asked to either nod their heads in agreement or shake them in disagreement
reported that it influenced their opinions. And a 2012 study by San Francisco State University
behavioral scientist Eric Peper found that skipping significantly increased subjects energy
levels, while walking in a slumped posturelike Charlie Brown on a bad daydepressed their
energy levels.

Its also possible for the bodys sensory systems to trick the mind and rewrite its mental maps. In
a study published in PLOS ONE in 2011, Dutch researchers rigged subjects with virtual reality
gear that gave them the sensation of having either a giant body or a doll-sized one. The illusion
was so effective that subjects actually perceived objects as being different in size and distance
from realityeither larger and more distant or smaller and nearer, depending upon whether they
were Barbie or Shrek-sized.
And as a 2008 article in Brain Research Bulletin detailed, if you cross your fingers and touch
your nose, your fingers can trick your brain into thinking that its feeling two separate noses.

War and Peace

Four steps to help you push through a challenging moment.


In the "Lets Get Physical" episode of Brain Games, you learned that your mind is capable of
fooling your body, and vice-versa. In particular, as athletes and their coaches have known for a
long time, its possible to train your mind and body to endure considerable amounts of physical
discomfort. A 2013 study, for example, found that triathletes who were subjected to extremes of
hot and cold actually reported feeling less pain, as well as tolerating it better than a control
group. The ability to withstand pain is a skill that could come in handy, whether youre
struggling to reach the finish line or trying to deal with a migraine headache. Here are a few tips
from the experts on how to teach yourself to hurt less.

Laugh at the pain.


A 2013 Swiss study found that people who watched a humorous film could hold their hands in
ice water better than a control group that wasnt amused, and that the pain tolerance lasted for 20
minutes after the chuckles subside. Researchers suspect that laughter is a potent analgesic
because it releases endorphins and eases muscle tension.

Breathe and talk to yourself.


Doing breathing exercises to relax your body and giving yourself encouraging feedback both
have been shown in studies to reduce discomfort, as Womens Health writer Camille Noe Pagan
explained in a 2011 article. If youre trying to make it through a session in the dentists chair or
endure a business meeting while suffering through a headache, inhale through your nose for 10
seconds, while repeating a positive mantra such as "it will get better soon." When you exhale,
imagine that youre pushing the pain out your nostrils.

Eat Right.
As a 2011 article from AARP: The Magazine notes, a diet rich in foods such as red grapes and
cherries, fish, soy products, and herbs and spices such as ginger and turmeric can help protect
you against pain. Red grapes, for example, contain resveratrol, a compound that blocks enzymes
that contribute to tissue degeneration, including cartilage damage that causes back pain.

Play a sport.
A 2012 meta-analysis of pain studies found that while athletes generally have higher pain
tolerance than sedentary people, the amount of pain tolerance varies. Athletes in endurance
sports had a fairly consistent moderate tolerance for pain, the most stoic jocks were the ones who
played "game" sports. If youve ever made the winning shot in a pickup basketball game on a
twisted ankle, you know how firing up the competitive urge can help you to block out
discomfort.