By Crabby McSlacker
OK, maybe no one else would be quite as intrigued by this study as I was. It still leaves many questions, and it's a bit impractical in its current form. It isn't a magic pill that the pharmaceutical companies can exploit. So who knows if anyone but avid Do it Yourselfers will take advantage of it?
But it's the implications of this study that got my overthinky brain churning away.
And, unfortunately for you guys, these implications led me to much speculation and theorizing about pain and personality and neuropsychology! Even more ominously, it got me thinking again about the whole Subjective versus Objective reality question.
Be very afraid.
So What Did The Damn Pain Study Say, Already?
Basically, this clever Pavlovian pain reduction study demonstrates that you can train your brain to reduce pain sensations whenever you hear a particular auditory stimulus--in this case, a "beep tone."
The pain reduction wasn't just by self-report. It showed up in EMG recordings of facial muscles, as well as something called the "nocifensive RIII flexion reflex." (And I have no idea what the hell that is. But I do know that if you arrived at Cranky Fitness googling THAT, you are probably far too smart to be reading this silliness. But please hang around anyway, okay? We love smartypants science geeks here!)
So anyway, this sounds really good, doesn't it?
Let's say you're going to the dentist, or getting your nether regions waxed, or attending your six year old nephew's clarinet recital. Wouldn't it be nice to take along an mp3 player, and know that whenever you felt any pain, you could beep-tone it down a few notches?
Well, the bad news is the methodology you have to use in order to train your brain to do that.
Meet Your New Friend: Heterotopic Noxious Counter-Stimulation (HNCS)!
OK, HNCS is not a friend you're going to want to hang around with for long. HNCS is basically a new distracting pain that your body attends to instead of the old pain.
In this case, study participants were trained to reduce the pain of nasty electrical shocks to the foot--by additionally sticking their hands in a bucket of ice water while the tone was playing.
(And yeah, if you learn nothing else from this blog post, I hope you at least take away: Do Not Sign Up for Pain Studies Unless They are Paying a Huge Crapload of Money!)
As it turns out, HNCS is a well-known pain reduction phenomenon. But it's not very practical. Switching the kind of pain you are experiencing to a different kind doesn't really buy you all that much if you are still miserable.
However, the cool thing is: once the subjects were trained, the experimenters took away the ice bucket, perhaps to mix themselves very large cocktails.
But the beep-tones that had been paired with the ice acquired the power to reduce pain from the electrical shocks all by themselves!
Why I Love This Study
What a simple and elegant design! And a hopeful conclusion: You can learn to use an arbitrary sound to alter your physiological and psychological response to pain.
I get really excited by any kind of scientific validation that the brain can be trained to do useful shit like this. I would even consider doing some experimentation with an ice bucket and an mp3 player the next time I have any predictable repetitive painful experiences coming my way.
Questions and Hypothetical Musings:
But, as the experimenters say in their conclusion: "future research will have to investigate the persistence of these effects."
In other words, they don't know how long the tones would keep reducing pain, once they stopped being paired with the "real" pain killer, the HNCS.
Because I'm thinking if it doesn't last very long, and is such a painful hassle to set up, it's not very practical, right?
So here's where I go off the deep end with my speculations, and indulge in some flagrant oversimplification and generalization.
Who Might Best Be Able to Erase Their Pain With Magical Beeps?
My guess is: for some people, this phenomenon could work pretty much forever.
I'm thinking specifically of folks with cheerful optimistic, wishful-thinking worldviews who keep their positive thoughts pumping regardless of the evidence.
Let's call them the Smiley People.
The first few times the beep tones would work like they're supposed to--and these people would go: Great, this is awesome! And from then on, they would expect their pain to go down, and they would harness the placebo effect and ride the hell out of it. And so then it would work again and they'd go: see? This is the best thing ever! And their enthusiasm might even help them see it as working even better each time than they remembered it working before.
And even if somehow it didn't work quite as well one time? A Smiley Person would assume it was a temporary glitch due to some external variable, and still go in the next time with high expectations. This cycle could constantly fuel the connection between the arbitrary tones and the magical pain reduction and they'd have a handy new tool for life!
In contrast: others folks would get no use out of this at all. Let's call them the Frowny People.
The Frownies would be skeptical from the very beginning. They would expect the pairing not to work, and if it did help a little, they wouldn't expect it to last. They would be hypervigilant for the very first signs that it was all a bogus mind-trick.
And sure enough, any variability would be the evidence they needed to conclude that it wasn't working so well anymore. It would be yet another example of how things never are as good as they're hyped to be, and how they are never the lucky people who things work for.
The Frownie People might even castigate themselves for any faint hopes they may have had that anything as dumb as listening to beep tones would be useful to fight pain. The Frownies would remember next time someone talks about pain relief to go in with even lower expectations.
Mr. Frownie? Meet Miss Smiley!
UPDATE: OK, after I spent all this time theorizing, I realized it would be totally embarrassing if the placebo/personality connection had been researched already and that I was totally full of it thinking there was a connection. But voila! There has indeed been research suggesting that the placebo effect works better for optimists.
From Ice Buckets to the Sneaky Secret of Happiness
Regular readers have probably picked up the fact that I'm a Frownie Person who is trying to change in into more of a Smiley person. I would really like to become someone who could stick my hand in a bucket of ice a few times, and have a lifetime of pain relief because I would keep reinforcing my belief that it works! Or I'd like to be a person who could hypnotize herself into becoming more confident or successful, or impervious to the temptation to eat 74,000 calories worth of trail mix in one sitting if any happened to be in the house.
Despite pissy examples like last weeks blog grouchfest, I'm making pretty good progress on the whole positive attitude adjustment project.
If you can imagine such a thing, I used to be way more of a curmudgeonly party pooper than I am now. But I'm still not as sunny and suggestible as a natural-born Smiley Person in the way I perceive and think about things.
I believe I've written about this before, and no doubt will again with more specifics, but one big trick I'm working on in improving my world view has been to become a lot more selective about when I even care about "objective reality."
Sure, if I'm contemplating an expensive purchase, then yeah, bring on the skepticism and screw wishful thinking. I want all the data I can find and want to muster critical thinking skills. I do not want to end up paying a fortune for some shoddy piece of crap just because I'd love to believe some nice salesman's earnest self-serving testimonial.
But when it comes to matters where a positive attitude might serve me better, regardless of evidence? Matters like physical health, and confidence and tranquility and follow-through and potential blissfulness? Well, bring on the beep tones, baby, and let me hop on the Placebo Train with all the happy Smileys. I suspect that the more I believe I can rewire my brain to do what I want it to, the better the chances are that I can do exactly that.
The tough question is: how do you rewire a skeptical mind to start believing things that are useful, regardless of objective "truth?" Well, as you may have feared, I've been playing around with that and have some thoughts! Perhaps for a future "Mindf--ck Monday" blog post.
How about you guys, do you have any pain reduction tricks or thoughts about personality or whatever? Or heck, how was your weekend?
(I'm off for another medical appointment and long-ass drive this morning but will return later in the day to check back in. Oh, and my grouchy mood seems to have passed even if the circumstances that led to it have not yet abated--yay! And thanks for your patience!)