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Uncategorized, week 2

My Pain, My Brain

In My Pain, My Brain by Melanie Thernstrom, the brain and its perception of the severity of physical pain is discussed. The interesting idea analyzed is the ability of one to regulate this pain through thought alone. This is especially relevant to the author as she herself suffers from a clinical condition known as chronic pain. Studies conducted at Stanford University utilize neuroimaging technology, monitoring brain activity while participants mentally increase or decrease their pain. These volunteers are shown their rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC) activity as an image of a flame, where a low flame corresponds to a calm rACC and a lesser feeling of pain. This enables subjects a visual of their pain as they attempt to control its effectiveness. When one injures a muscle, physical therapy is often required to rebuild and strengthen that muscle. It is by the same premise that one can strengthen control of their rACC, actively managing pain by mental exercise. The study revealed that “chronic pain patients…reported an average decrease of sixty-four percent in pain rating.” Upon showing false images of brain activity, the results weren’t “nearly as well,” helping to discount the training as a placebo.

But, I am not entirely convinced that this is not an instance of the placebo effect. Administering a sugar pill, under the guise of a drug, have the patients believe the pill is providing relief. In this study, the patients believe that they themselves are providing relief. I do not think simply stating that the outcome wasn’t “nearly as well” is conclusive enough. If a simple statistic were provided for the false images, as were with the main tests, the argument against the placebo effect would be stronger.

Thernstrom is able to present a sense of credibility by incorporating studies from reputable universities. Her participation in the research provides a depth of insight that further supports her credibility. She entices the reader from the very beginning, suggesting the possibility of sculpting our perfect mental selves. Who could resist? She keeps the reader’s attention by playing off the senses with imagery, being careful to not drown us with a river of science. There is mention of “burning witches”, “the smell of sizzling hair,” and “flesh being combed from his bones.” The article was written for an adult audience without requiring a medical degree to comprehend. It was informational and as complex as the brain is, the article was easy to read.



2 thoughts on “My Pain, My Brain

  1. So do you think she glosses over the possibility that the neuroimagering therapy has a placebo effect? You may be right; however, what about the fact that subjects who look at images of their brain (or rather, representations) are actively controlling their brain activity? With a placebo pill, subjects inject something they believe to help them, so the act is passive. I’m not positive here, but wouldn’t agency make a difference?

    Posted by klucenko | February 2, 2012, 3:50 am
    • After rereading the article, I realize she utilizes distraction to assuage her pain. Watching the flame while trying to decrease pain using her imagination is a form of distraction I feel. Thernstrom makes reference to Irene Tracey and her theory of distraction after she describes her martyr fantasy. I think it couldn’t be ruled out that active participation is vital to the process. Honestly, I think there will always be mystery concerning the brain. With every finding it seems there arrives more uncertainty and questioning. Consciousness is a conundrum.

      Posted by imlundstrom | February 14, 2012, 6:03 am

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