Emotions Establish How Intensely We Feel Pain

Emotions Establish How Intensely We Feel Pain

Stub your toe, and you may think the pain is there. But actually it’s all in your head.

That is, the nerves in your toe send the signals to your brain where they are interpreted as pain. The brain is constantly controlling the flow of such messages, dampening some and intensifying others. But it gets more complicated still. There are actually two entirely different brain systems that control pain. This is according to John’s Hopkins University professor of neuroscience, David Linden. He’s written a book entitled, Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind.

Doctors at the Veteran’s Administration (VA) hospitals have long known about soldiers injured severely in battle will tend not to recognize even that they are injured until the battle is over. Yet, later in the hospital a small thing like a hypodermic needle can cause extreme pain. The emotion we feel that is attached to each pain experience is also assigned by the brain. The brain actually has two systems for this, one that recognizes pain, where it is coming from and how intense. The other system assigns an emotion to that pain.

Researchers previously did not know these were separate systems. Positive emotions like feeling safe, calm and connected with friends, family or a partner help minimize the impact of pain. But negative emotions like worry, stress or despair heighten it. Now scientists are trying to get a handle on exactly how the brain uses emotions to turn up or down the pain sensation. By having participants concentrate on their hands or toes and hitting them, Brown University researchers have begun to notice low-frequency rhythms emanating from the frontal lobe. These are turned up to block the pain sensation, or down to allow more of it through.

Researchers say these low-frequency rhythms may be the key to a whole new kind of chronic pain therapy. This discovery may lead to techniques patients can use to filter out the intensity of sensation. Meditation was one such method suggested. This piggybacks on a study using mindfulness techniques in 2011 which found that people could consciously learn to control these rhythms and block out pain.

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