The Undefeated Mind: pain

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Frosted Tamarack Swamp
Photograph by Adam Dorn

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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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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by mahbuttitches on January 7, 2017 at 6:44 pm

    Fascinating!!! I have wondered for awhile if my “high pain tolerance” is actually a byproduct of my ability to disassociate from reality. The things I “take in stride”, I have come to realize, are not normal. As I become more aware, my tolerance has dropped significantly. To the point, I’ve had to cut my family out of my life because I can’t “deal with it anymore”Emotional or physical pain aren’t anything I have a high tolerance for anymore.

  2. I have chronic pain from a triple rollover car accident and injuries from a professional baseball player.

    In the beginning I threw away my pain pills and walked.

    My pain would escalate with the excercise and I would continue to walk for 15 to 30 more minutes. My body secreted my own endorphins and my pain started to subside or narrow.

    I learned to not give any attention to my pain and it lessened even more.

    Chronic pain is different than acute pain.

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