Exciting new research has recently emerged regarding the impact of mental imagery on reported pain levels, which could open new paths for research and treatment.
For patients living with chronic pain, it’s probably old news that pain can be different on different days, during different activities, or even when a patient is in different moods. This is because there are both physical and emotional components to pain, transforming a very intricate and precise firing of neurons into a varied and personal subjective experience. We know that these signals can be interrupted and diminished by drugs, physical therapies, and new advances in technology.
In a study conducted with 40 healthy volunteers, participants were stimulated on their arm with different temperatures and asked to rate their experience of pain on a scale of 1 to 100. For each temperature stimulus, a photo of a person’s face was shown to the participant on a screen. The research consisted of two parts: In the first part participants were shown the faces with the matching temperatures repeatedly, conditioning the group to associate the image with the level of pain reported. This part was essentially a classical test of the placebo effect, where the participants would expect and then report a level of pain that they associated with the image, even if the stimulus was changed. In the second part, the image was shown for 12 milliseconds and then masked, too fast to be perceived by the conscious mind. The researchers found similar results in the second experiment, indicating that the mechanisms in the brain responsible for the placebo effect can work without the person being consciously aware of the cues.
Mindfulness meditation is a process where calming the body, eliminating stress and recognizing pain signals as they occur allows patients to control how strong these impulses are interpreted by the brain. We mentioned use of mindfulness meditation techniques on the blog earlier this year. This mental exercise technique uses guided visualization to bring awareness to all parts of the body. This is an active process, where the patient is imagining specific images that promote relaxation.
What sets this new research apart is that it questions whether or not the brain can respond to mental images without the person being conscious or aware of what they are seeing and ultimately determining if the unconscious mind can be trained to affect pain responses.
The conscious mind is sometimes described as the tip of an iceberg, with the larger unconscious mind lying beneath the surface of the water. What if treatments could target this submerged underworld?
If you are interested in reading more about the study the full text is available online.