Monday, December 12, 2005

Thinking away the pain

Pain can be a mysterious condition. Why does it occur? The Buddha said the source of pain is suffering, or something like that. He also sat under a tree for years at a time, so maybe he wasn't all that sane. In any case modern research has been identifying mind-body-spirit connections where your mind can control what your body does. I suppose that can change ones personal experience of life from being a victum of whatever your body does, to having some mastery over your experience of life.

The research discussed here: Think Away the Pain (By Rachel Metz, Wired News, December 21, 2005) sounds so very much like BioFeedback, though the article doesn't use that word.

The research is detailed here: Learned Volitional Control Over Brain fMRI Activation and Pain

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is a tool that allows researchers to open windows into the brain and “see” brain activity. Until recently, fMRI data needed to be analyzed off-line with the results being unavailable until many hours after the subject was scanned. Through software developed by Dr. Christopher deCharms in collaboration with Stanford University, we are now able to analyze the imaging data in near real time and show a subject being scanned their own brain activity on a moment by moment basis.

From the description (and pictures on the site) I imagine the user has a moving real-time image of some kind of measurements of activity in their brain. Then they made some kind of suggestions over how a person could change their brain activity in the the rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC). They don't go into what those suggestions are.

I mentioned biofeedback, which has a long history in mind-body studies. The general concept is to have some kind of instrument that measures biological activity, displays that biological activity to the patient, and through their inner "mental" processes they find a way to change that biological activity. The biofeedback machine continuously measures their biological activity, giving direct feedback as to whether they're succeeding to make the change. (Get it? biological feedback --> biofeedback?)

In the past biofeedback machines measured electrical brainwaves or heartrate. At the end of this article I link to the Wild Divine game, which is a simplistic biofeedback machine packaged as a computer game. It measures heart rate and skin resistance.

In one way, the rtfMRI is just a fancier set of biological activity measurements. Though, I suppose having more data to display to the user is better than the limited amount of data past biofeedback machines display. It will be interesting to see where this goes.

In the meantime I have a lot of experience with pain myself. I tend to agree with the Buddha, and that by using meditative techniques I've found myself able to shift the experience of pain in my life. I have had for years chronic pain that comes and goes, and have found it always has within it some emotional content. My inner turmoil manifests as this pain. And if I sit with that turmoil and find a wholesome or compassionate way of witnessing the turmoil, then the pain will shift dramatically.

So there's something to what that Buddha guy said all those years ago. Maybe we don't need the gadgetry? Or maybe the gadgetry can help us more quickly learn the meditative techniques taught by the Buddhists?