People can decrease pain by observing their own brain activity.

VIDEO Click on the image to watch changing brain activity of a patient with chronic shoulder and back pain. Credit: Stanford University School of Medicine

When undergoing some mind-over-matter alternative treatments for pain, patients are often told to visualize their pain as a fiery mass to be cooled, a sharp knife to be withdrawn, a red ball to be thrown away from one’s self, or a fish to be snatched up by a shark. In a recent Stanford University School of Medicine study, patients got to visualize their pain as blood flow to select areas of their brains.

And, by observing their brain activity in real time, patients were able to manage their suffering. The study, published in the December 12th online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, makes strides in understanding the connection between the brain and the mind.

“I think it nicely extends upon what we’ve known for some time: that there’s a direct mind-body interaction, that ultimately our perception of pain resides in our brain,” said study coauthor Sean Mackey. “What we’re now doing is bringing a real neurophysiologic understanding to how we control our brain activity and where in the brain that is being controlled. We hope in the future we can use this information to target specific therapies to those brain regions.”

Mackey and his team used fMRI to scan the brains of two groups of subjects: eight chronic pain patients and 36 healthy people who received pain via a non-harmful heat stimulus to the palm. Using state-of-the-art software, the team was able to analyze the fMRI images at the exact moments when the subjects experienced pain.

The researchers located the area of each subject’s brain that responded to pain, and then allowed the subject to observe activity in that area as it occurred. Each participant was asked to “cognitively modulate” the brain signal.

“We would have them think about turning the brain activation up and down,” Mackey said. “And it’s not just a simple thing of being in a scanner and saying, ‘Well, I want it to go up,’ and it goes up, or, ‘I want it to go down,’ and it goes down. You actually have to engage certain brain processes to be able to move that signal up and down.”

The researchers gave the patients a few possible strategies for signal modulation, such as focusing first on the pain and then away from the pain or changing the perception of the sensation from unbearably hot to soothingly warm.

Over the course of three sessions, the patients overwhelmingly learned how to successfully modulate the signal and manage both the intensity and unpleasantness of their pain.

So, how did they do it? The researchers aren’t sure.

“The challenge in this is that most people had a real difficult time describing what they were finally doing,” Mackey said. “We don’t really have a vernacular, a way of describing how we control our brains. When you reach out to grab a pencil, you couldn’t really describe how you reached out to grab that pencil.”

Mackey said he and his team are currently trying to figure out what techniques work by asking patients to concentrate on specific strategies and observing their success. They are also examining the differences between more and less successful individuals and conducting a larger trial with chronic pain patients to see the long-term effectiveness of these methods on pain control.

While this technique will not be available to the public any time soon, Mackey believes the research might have more immediate implications for understanding how existing psychological techniques for controlling pain work, and how to better utilize these strategies.

“I think that this type of work helps validate a lot of what psychologists have been doing for some time—using specific tools like cognitive behavioral therapy, imagery, mindfulness, meditation,” he said. “And while I don’t want to say that this particular technique is like any of those, I see wonderful opportunities for combining these techniques and perhaps coming up with something in the future that’s much better.”

It looks as though the fiery mass, sharp knife, red ball and doomed fish may be around for a while, yet.

Originally published December 16, 2005


Share this Stumbleupon Reddit Email + More


  • Ideas

    I Tried Almost Everything Else

    John Rinn, snowboarder, skateboarder, and “genomic origamist,” on why we should dumpster-dive in our genomes and the inspiration of a middle-distance runner.

  • Ideas

    Going, Going, Gone

    The second most common element in the universe is increasingly rare on Earth—except, for now, in America.

  • Ideas

    Earth-like Planets Aren’t Rare

    Renowned planetary scientist James Kasting on the odds of finding another Earth-like planet and the power of science fiction.

The Seed Salon

Video: conversations with leading scientists and thinkers on fundamental issues and ideas at the edge of science and culture.

Are We Beyond the Two Cultures?

Video: Seed revisits the questions C.P. Snow raised about science and the humanities 50 years by asking six great thinkers, Where are we now?

Saved by Science

Audio slideshow: Justine Cooper's large-format photographs of the collections behind the walls of the American Museum of Natural History.

The Universe in 2009

In 2009, we are celebrating curiosity and creativity with a dynamic look at the very best ideas that give us reason for optimism.

Revolutionary Minds
The Interpreters

In this installment of Revolutionary Minds, five people who use the new tools of science to educate, illuminate, and engage.

The Seed Design Series

Leading scientists, designers, and architects on ideas like the personal genome, brain visualization, generative architecture, and collective design.

The Seed State of Science

Seed examines the radical changes within science itself by assessing the evolving role of scientists and the shifting dimensions of scientific practice.

A Place for Science

On the trail of the haunts, homes, and posts of knowledge, from the laboratory to the field.


Witness the science. Stunning photographic portfolios from the pages of Seed magazine.

SEEDMAGAZINE.COM by Seed Media Group. ©2005-2015 Seed Media Group LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Sites by Seed Media Group: Seed Media Group | ScienceBlogs | Research Blogging | SEEDMAGAZINE.COM