Pain travels along two pathways simultaneously. One pathway delivers information to the brain reporting a physical sensation while another sends signals to the amygdala and the anterior cingulate cortex, which are the areas of the brain that process emotion. This emotional component to pain is an expanding area of research in mind/body medicine. Researchers are trying to determine to what extent the mind can be used to affect chronic discomfort. At the forefront are studies on what is called mindfulness meditation, a practice that brings awareness to the body and alleviates painful sensations through relaxation, visualization, and breathing techniques. By bringing attention to the present state of the body mindfulness meditation is hypothesized to reduce the anticipation and negative appraisal of pain.
One of the central tools of mindfulness meditation is a “body scan”, basically a 20-40 minute guided visualization which draws focus to different areas of the body to better identify and thereby control the interpretation of pain signals (for an example, check out this sound cloud link) . The idea here is to develop the body scan technique gradually until you are able do this effectively and on your own for a few minutes everyday.
But does it really work?
A comprehensive article in The Atlantic presents both anecdotal and scientific evidence on how the mind can affect sensory experience.
In this short report from the BBC, a journalist investigates the growing interest in mindfulness meditation and the science behind the practice. About 5 minutes into the report he visits a neuroscientist whose MRI imaging of the brain shows that pain messages were in fact moderated or “turned down” during mindfulness meditation.
The bottom line, something changes when we start to calm the mind and listen to our bodies signals.