the Undefeated Mind: pain

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Though the pain of a stubbed toe or a headache may seem like a single, unified experience, it actually represents the sum of two different experiences created by two separate areas of the brain—one called the posterior insula, which registers the sensation of pain (its quality, intensity, and so on) and the other the anterior cingulate cortex, which registers pain’s unpleasant character.
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We know this is how the brain experiences pain because of imaging studies and because patients who’ve had damage to the anterior cingulate cortex feel the sensation of pain but not its unpleasantness.
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That is, they feel pain but aren’t bothered by it (interestingly, in some people, morphine has the same effect).
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When the anterior cingulate cortex isn’t functioning, pain is still experienced but seems to lose its emotional impact and thus its motivating force.
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This finding, that the sensation of pain and the unpleasantness of pain come from distinct neurological processes that occur in different locations within the brain, explains how a single pain stimulus can cause such subjectively different pain experiences.
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Even if the physical sensation of pain remains constant, our “affective reaction” to it—how much it makes us suffer—will vary tremendously depending on several factors.
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Research shows, for example, that how we interpret the meaning of pain has a dramatic impact on our ability to tolerate it.
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In one study, subjects reported pain they believed represented tissue damage to be more intense than pain they believed didn’t, possibly explaining why women rate cancer pain as more unpleasant than labor pain even when their intensities are the same.
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Not only that, but when we focus on the benefit of pain (when one exists), we’re actually able to reduce its unpleasantness.
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One response to this post.

  1. […] the Undefeated Mind: pain […]

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