I often get asked how does the brain deal with pain? The brain is a highly complex organ so lets not think of the brain regions as an entity; more like a highway of networks communicating. To understand how the brain makes pain, I will use the analogy of networks like a map. You may come to have some gratitude towards your brain, as your brain is only doing it’s absolute best to protect you.
So how does your brain deal with pain? Here’s an everyday analogy
Keeping to the network analogy: lets say you are meeting a friend for a coffee at a new unbeknownst location. You lock in the coordinates in your mobile app, and away you go. You start briskly walking and come across a busy pedestrian crossing. Of course you wait until the green logo flashes for you to safely cross.
As you continue to walk a cyclist rings their bell to notify you of their passing. The initial noise was alarming, which caught you by surprise. However the cyclist speeds on by, and you are back to absorbing the beautiful sunshine.
Further up the road you notice a branch impeding the footpath from the previous days storm. You decide to live a little, and jump over the branch thanking your exercise physiologist for the strong bones. Your heart rate settles back down, and your mobile app notifies you that you are five minutes from your destination.
As you see the coffee shop in the distance you close down the app taking your eyes briefly off the footpath to put your mobile phone away. Within a matter of milliseconds a car pulls out of the driveway while your head is still down. You put on your own breaks, by contracting your muscles with great force to prevent walking into the red jeep.
The driver gives you a wave in courtesy, and takes off. Still feeling a little startled, a memory comes up of your one and only bike accident. Five years ago with a red sedan, while you were training for your maiden triathlon. You consciously rub your right shoulder. Your friend meets you with a warm smile and hug. You both sit down, and your friend notices that you look a little ‘stiff’.
Breaking down the perceive threats so that we can understand how your brain deals with pain
The following analogy contains many contexts that I am going to break down with you, and most importantly reduce the threats. In my analogy I constructed a few events during the walk to the coffee shop that all have contextual meanings that the brain must process. Most are safe, with a couple having more meaning, can you guess which ones?
The pedestrian crossing is a safe means to cross the road. Although the crossing is busy with traffic. The brain likes the safety of the green light. What about the speeding cyclist? Although the cyclist bell would have been initially startling- fast acting areas in your brainstem enable you to respond quickly, the cyclist was also being courteous, while speeding off, which your brain processes the comforting visual information of safety.
What about the branch on the footpath? Haven’t you been strength training with your exercise physiologist? and feeling confident and strong? The quick jump activates the fight and flight system to release adrenaline to contract your muscles quickly, the brain enjoys these types of acute stress.
Now, how about the red jeep pulling out in front of you without any warning? Now here is an acute threat. However there are some added contexts to consider. The colour of the jeep is significant (remember the red sedan?), along with the colour red meaning: stop, hot and danger! And what about the significance? Weren’t you training for your first triathlon before being knocked off- with a subsequent right shoulder injury?
That is a pretty significant event that your brain ought to remember with great detail to protect you. However, the accident happened five years ago. Still, every time you see a red car, you notice that you hold onto your breath.
Lastly, your friend used the word “stiff” to describe your seated posture. What comes to mind when you think of stiff? Stiff can be in reference to your muscles tightening up reducing mobility, and maybe activating that neat fight and flight response again. But do you need it this time?
Can you see how everyday events can trigger the networks in the brain to communicate on: sound, vision, memory, colour and muscle tone? And how the significance of the event, even though it happened five years ago, can still alarm the brain to protect you?