Neuroplastic Brain Hacking Day 25!

Today has been a busy day, and I’ve managed to ride it out with little drama by remembering to slow down and visualise at certain times. Transitions between activities are a classic time to forget the technique and just race ahead with the next thing — but pain is functioning beautifully as a messenger to be mindful and do the practices that unwind my brain.

I’m now pretty convinced of the technique’s effectiveness. There will be future setbacks, but I’m excited.

I have another piece I’m writing about this stuff and the crossover between it and mindfulness / vipassana. But it will have to wait as there’s more research required. Watch this space.

What Gets Fired Gets Wired — Is “Pain Free” a Sensible Goal? Neuroplastics for Persistent Pain: Day 24

Pain is not an enemy — it is an important messenger in our bodymind. It is a protective mechanism that saves our lives through letting us know about our environment. We’re going to need a frequent stream of those messages to keep ourselves safe. Getting rid of them is not realistic, or even desirable. It’s also not what this technique is about.

What the neuroplastic hack I’m crafting should accomplish is the ability to feel pain normally again. Without it spilling over into a large-scale take over of important brain processing regions.

The only reason that spillover is happening in the first place is because my brain has done its job. It’s not a malfunction or some kind of disorder — it’s a side effect of repeat pain signals (nociception) from the peripheral nerves. They have kept the pain centres of my brain in a state of alert. The actual biology of this is fascinating. I am not a doctor, but this is my understanding: inflammation, as it becomes chronic in the site of injury, eventually generates a flurry of rapid-fire signals that set up long-term activation in the pain regions of the brain. Once this long-term activation occurs, neurons can continue to fire off signals for days or even years, without receiving any new triggers. They become self-activated. This particular state (called Long-Term Potentiation) also triggers the release of a specific pain neurotransmitter called Substance P. Substance P then traverses the spinal cord to the periphery where it triggers the release of further inflammatory molecules from cells in the fascia called fibroblasts. An unending cycle of triggers has been established.  

Enter the 1st Law of Neuroplasticity: What Gets Fired, Gets Wired. This law describes the  experiential bias in our brain pathways: the more we use a given network, the more priority is given to it and the larger its physical size within our brain. The unending inflammatory cycle I outlined in the earlier, coupled with the 1st Law, leaves us primed to fall afoul of chronic pain. If we do not intervene, we will continue to add wiring to the pain pathways, until we see an increase in neuronal involvement in pain from 5% of neurons in a “normal” brain, up to 15% or even 25% in a brain with chronic pain syndrome.

That’s a lot of processing power been commandeered by the pain, when it could be being used to remember things or form sentences or make plans.

What Gets Used Gets Enthused (I just made that up). My brain has become better and better at feeling pain because that’s been a continual source of stimulation for so long. What I’m doing with the neuroplasticity hack, is to benefit from our structural understanding of the brain in the 21st century, and to apply some formidable human abilities: 

  • to direct my focus
  • to sustain attention
  • to practise meta-cognition (thinking about what we’re thinking)

We use these capabilities we’re blessed with, to steer our mind away from pain whenever it is detected. To receive the message, but to intervene with the very neurons the pain regions need to use for their wind up, and instead give them a different job to do. What Gets Fired Gets Wired. We can use the 1st Law as a virtue and not a curse.

By cognitively altering the firing pattern in our pain networks, they will, over time, rewire themselves so that eventually we do not need to cognitively do the work. It’ll be part of the firmware — a habit, if you like, subconscious and lightning quick.
It takes a while for the cognitive effort to tip the balance though. There’s a lot of pain habit built into those networks, and the brain is weighted towards experience. It won’t just drop years of wiring in favour of a week’s stimulus — or even six weeks. 

Although the improvements should be starting to take place for me in the next few weeks, it’ll take months for them to truly set themselves as the new normal. And I’ll have to stay vigilant with every pain spike for the rest of my life, to keep the pain habit from reforming, because the injury and others will continue to be a source of niggles from time to time.
So no, the goal is not to live some kind of pain-free celestial existence. This is more pragmatic than that.

Neuroplastic Brain Hacking for Persistent Pain: Day 23

Support groups are not really my thing. If I hadn’t kept a diary today, then I’d probably not have considered the idea of looking for one.

This morning Leo asked if I’m hurting a lot and I paused before replying to his question, but just to assemble my thoughts. I’d been visualising way more than yesterday — interrupting myself, or him, mid-sentence even, to close eyes and wrest some processing back from protesting brain regions, before jumping back into the flow of conversation, or finishing coffee extraction, or spreading my toast. But when he asked that, I was feeling pretty good.

“It’s funny. Today the pain is coming in waves, so there are these gaps where the pain stops. That means that I notice when it resurfaces and I’m like Oh! I can use this to practice some more. Yesterday, the pain was actually way worse but it was constant. I think I was visualising less. When there’s never a moment when you’re not getting a hot-knives feeling in three, five, ten body parts, you don’t get the cue to visualise. It just grinds on incessantly. I don’t want to just sit in a chair all day doing this, but it’s like, ‘Well, if I don’t do it all day, when, then?’ When the pain is constant, there’s no contour or trigger to visualise.

“I still don’t know what to do on these kinds of days.”

I wrote about this exchange in my diary after breakfast, and it has been echoing in my head all day.

If I’m to make a success of this practice then these flare-up episodes are the proving ground. If I don’t rewire the networks to the level where I can prevent all or most episodes, then it will have failed. I don’t want just another crutch like breathing techniques or restorative yoga. Wonderful as those practices may be, they do not unravel the wiring of chronic pain, they are basically just an alternative to pain medication — when stopped, the pain gradually returns. As the quote from Doidge I posted earlier says “unlike medication … the neuroplastic technique allows patients to reduce its use over time, once their networks have rewired.” [1]

Although I might be starting to find traction with the days in between the flare-ups, I still don’t have a handle on the flare-ups themselves. This realisation dawned on my gradually, almost reluctantly, over the course of the day, through writing and mulling it over in my head. Tonight as I type this entry up I have the problem staring me in the face again. So as I said at the start of this post, I’ve begun researching and tracking down a few pain forums online. One of them is even based out of NZ and may lead to me finding a local face-to-face group that I can refer to when stuck like this. More investigations to come.

This is a perfect illustration of why keeping a diary is so incredibly beneficial for me while making a lifestyle change like this. Thanks to those of you who are reading, and those of you who are not, well, up yours!

Offending those who will never read it is a victimless crime right? 🙂


Quote: Doidge on Moskowitz’s Neuroplastic Cure for Persistent Pain

What Moskowitz has added to our understanding of this ability of the mind to eliminate a particular pain is that constant mental practice is necessary to strengthen this ability and change the firing of the brain in a way that is sustained. Unlike medication or placebo, the neuroplastic technique allows patients to reduce its use over time, once their networks have rewired.

The effects last. Moskowitz has patients who have kept their gains for five years. Many of his relatively pain-free patients still have damage in their bodies, which can, on occasion, trigger acute pain. He thinks that once they have learnt and practised the technique over hundreds of hours, their unconscious mind takes over the task of blocking pain by using competitive plasticity. When it doesn’t, they can still use the spike of pain as the signal to consciously use competitive plasticity to do more rewiring. “I don’t believe in pain management anymore,” says Moskowitz. “I believe in trying to cure persistent pain.”[1]

[1] Doidge, Norman. The Brain’s Way of Healing. Penguin Press 2015.

Neuroplastic Brain Hacking for Persistent Pain: Day 22

Today I’ve been struggling with mental focus. The visualisation technique has been hard to access. I can really feel the cognitive effects of yesterday’s flare up (the mental clarity takes a couple days to come back). That’s interfering with motivation. All I want is pain relief, whereas the visualisation is not necessarily about that. The motivation is to rewire the brain. But because of pain and lack of clarity, I’m in a kind of flailing mood, where such abstract motivations don’t satisfy what feels like an impulse from my reptilian brain to “Do Something!”

Lack of clarity and that reptilian fear factor are also causing focus to fail before I’ve had time to run through the visualisation. My mind is sucked away into pain and paranoia.

I’ve found myself falling back on the “grit your teeth and bear it” approach that I used to have prior to finding this technique.

I’m annoyed and angry with myself for falling into this pattern.

On a brighter note, Section Two of Moskowitz suggests ways to disrupt the pain pathways that might be very helpful. Including a possible way to incorporate mindfulness / vipassana techniques. Although he doesn’t call them that, there is plenty of similarity between what he’s suggesting and what I have practiced in the past. I’ve missed my daily meditation, which I stopped during week one of the trial.

More on that to follow tomorrow.

Neuroplastic Brain Hacking for Persistent Pain: Day 21

Three weeks today. I did shoulder work this morning — by which I mean, some very simple physio exercises for serratus anterior and lower trapezius. It felt good! More energy and breathing was so … uneventful. Nothing but pure breath. This afternoon though, has been challenging. See, before I found the neuroplastics technique, shoulder work came with a one-hundred-percent certainty (I am not exaggerating) of an intense migraine-like episode of whole body pain, travelling in waves through myofascial meridians, for two or three days. I used to call them migraines because they were accompanied by intense headache in each eye socket, broken-glass vision, dizziness, nausea etc. I don’t know what else to call them, but I don’t think they’re classical migraines in the medical sense.

Anyway, I’m not sure I was ready for the shoulder work today. It was pretty ambitious. It’s been about three months since I tried anything like it, and that last time I had to take about a week off work it was so bad.

I’m feeling a lot of spasming all over my body. The level of challenge to keep up the visualisation is so high that I’ve basically achieved nothing since about lunchtime.

But, and this is huge for me, it appears to be simmering at a low boil rather than reaching the level of a full-scale pain attack. As long as I’m obsessive with the neuroplastic tech, it seems to be able to keep it from turning into an out of control wind up.

Suffice it to say, I’ll not be doing shoulder work again in the next wee while, but I’m happy with progress.

The Neighbour’s Son

Jamie the neighbour’s son came over last night. Well, he skated past while I was chopping kindling out the front. He called out “Hey Jules”, and came up the drive. Obviously something on his fourteen-year-old mind. Turned out his mum is in hospital with pneumonia and his dad — Daryl — was in there with her, as moral support. There’s a shadow on her heart and they’re going to operate to find out what it is. She’s had cancer once already.

They’re messed up people, Daryl and Loraine, but they do right by Jamie. They’ve taken the route in life — forced to by circumstances I expect — of working hard rather than overcoming their emotional difficulties. As a result, they drink a fair bit, smoke a lot of tobacco (wacky and not), have the messiest yard in the street, and leave Jamie on his own a bit more often than he perhaps needs from them. But he loves them. He’s a solid kid with a lot of love inside. Most of his days he spends down at the river fishing or BMX-ing around. His dad encourages him as much as he can by taking him and his school friends with their rubber dinghy to the fishing spots he knows from his own childhood. When he’s not working both weekend days that is. I know all this from conversations I’ve had and overheard, in that suburban way.

Thinking of Jamie and all the unguided worry he’s dealing with, made me realise how much one can cope with if they have a bit of nature in their lives. Reckon that’s something I’m missing a bit. Could do with some kind of activity that takes me into the interactions of birds and trees, insects, flowers, rabbits and sheep. Leaves, branches and good solid earth. Yeah, even in winter. What would that be, though? These days all the professions are bastardised by machinery and radios playing The Rock FM and contracts and profits and deadlines. Forget that shit.

I had a childhood surrounded by nature — even after we moved into the city from the country, our house had a small orchard of twenty-five fruit trees. As a child I was always outside, except if it was raining or snowing — then I was only half the time outside. Making dams in the gutter. Slipping around in the paddocks. Playing in the sandpit on sunny days. Climbing trees. Trampolining. Camping in the backyard, or further afield. Walking all over the Port Hills, walking to friends’ homes up and down the steep winding stairs and streets of Lyttelton. We were poor (my mum raised four kids on her own) but I was happy.

Once I left home it felt like it was all over. Everything I’d loved suddenly became a luxury I couldn’t afford. Unless you pursue it into adulthood, learn to make it work for you, create money through doing the same things you’ve always loved. Right?

Well, that hasn’t worked for me either so far. No one’s going to feed me to climb trees unless I’m cutting them down. Or unless I’ve a doctorate degree in botany that’s been written on cut down trees. No one’s going to feed me to walk through the hills unless I’ve got a goal. A destination. Or an audience.

It becomes a profession.

Growing up is so fucking overrated.

Neuroplastic Brain Hacking Day 20 — On to Section Two

Feeling like my motivation has slipped a bit in the last few days, and as such I’m not really progressing. I think I got thrown off a bit by a few things. Not to worry though — I’m sure that’s all part of the learning cycle. But I’ll need some external input to keep taking this deeper. Moskowitz has five sections in his book [1] and recommends taking them one at a time so that we can develop familiarity with each technique before moving onwards. Visualisation is actually just Section One. On to Section Two then!

[1] Moskowitz and Golden. Neuroplastic Transformation Workbook.

Neuroplastic Visualisation for Persistent Pain: Day 19

I’m definitely feeling a benefit from what I’ve done so far. Like a weight has lifted ever so slightly. I’m still at the stage where I’m superstitiously afraid of jinxing it (I debate with myself about writing this even as I’m doing so). But every day now I go through a process of realisation that what I’ve found actually works — that when my brain is occupied withinagery it cannot process pain. The next phase will be when the connections to imagery and “non-pain stimuli” become so strong that they overthrow the dominance of pain circuitry.

There’s a riskiness that goes along with starting to make genuine progress. When I was first starting out, I had to be very particular with myself while visualising, taking care to run through the whole thing from beginning to end, stopping whatever I was doing whenever I felt pain. But it’s been 19 days now. I’m starting to feel a little bit hum-drum about it. As though it’s no big deal, and if I leave the pain for a while and just finish what I’m doing, then I can fit it in afterwards. This combined with the improvement in pain that I’m already seeing can tempt me into complacency. I tend to have a treacherous mind like that.

It’s more important than ever to keep up the relentless effort. But an effort of will is not going to cut it — I’ll spend some time tomorrow digging up new research and use it for motivation. And keep remembering that the intention is not to accomplish a certain degree of pain relief but to shrink the neural pain connections that are over-excitable.

Socially Hacking the Neuroplastic Brain — Day 18

Why am I writing these updates? I don’t expect they’ll be relevant to many people (and that’s a good thing!). Maybe someone stores away the info for later and circumstances change and it becomes important for them — that’s one possibility. But mostly it’s just a way of keeping a diary; I’ve rarely been able to determinedly effect change in my life without one. And I’m aware this time that a) the stakes are high and b) the level of moment by moment commitment required to make this work is unprecedented. So diarying out in public makes sense to me — it’s as though I’m accountable. Not to anyone in particular. It’s just a social hack to eke every bit of determination I can get out of the situation.

Same reason people go on silent retreats in groups. Gathering together to be silent. Not for the idle banter that’s for sure! But because socially we get an extra ounce of energy from doing things together. Which illustrates another reason, really. It’d be just too damn lonely doing it on my own.

Almost into the twenties. Bring it!