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.