The brain can be taught to reduce pain

Harold Mandel's picture
A woman in pain

There has been a great deal of attention to the serious problem of abuse of pain killers. The abuse of these drugs can lead to serious illness and death. News that it's possible to train the brain to reduce pain is therefore welcomed.

Associative learning processes may be associated with pain reduction

Researchers studied the influence of Pavlovian conditioning on pain inhibition in 32 healthy subjects by using a differential conditioning paradigm in which two different acoustic stimuli were either repeatedly paired or unpaired with noxious counter-stimulation. The results of this study indicated that the functional state of endogenous pain control systems may show a dependence on associative learning processes and may lead to a lessening of pain perception reported the journal PLOS One. It has also been recognized that opposite conditioning of pain control mechanisms may be involved in the exacerbation and chronification of pain states.

The phenomenon of pain inhibiting pain is for real


It has been known by scientists for years that on-going pain in one part of the body is decreased when a new pain is inflicted to a different part of the body. This pain blocking mechanism which is a physiological reaction by the nervous system to help the body cope with a potentially more relevant novel threat has been studied.

First painful electric pulses were administered to a subject’s foot and the resulting pain intensity was measured. The subject was than asked to put their hand in a bucket of ice water, which is a novel stimulus known to cause pain reduction. As this was done a telephone ringtone was sounded in headphones. In the aftermath of repeating this procedure several times the researchers observed that the pain felt from the electrical stimulation was lowered simply when the ring tone was sounded.

Learning effects are thought to be involved in the enhancement and maintenance of pain

What was seen was the brain had been conditioned with the ringtone being a signal to trigger the physical pain blocking mechanism of the body. Fewer objective signs of pain were seen such as activity in the muscles which are used in the facial expression of pain such as frowning. It has been seen that just as the physiological reaction of saliva secretion was provoked in Pavlov’s dogs by the ringing of a bell, a similar effect occurs regarding the ability to mask pain in people.

Similar learning effects are thought to be involved in the enhancement and maintenance of pain in some patients. The apparent ability of the brain to learn to decrease pain is very significant in the fight to lower the dependence on drugs to fight pain.