Plastic Brain Training
We all have plastic brains.
It’s amazing just how much our nervous systems are able to change. And we can harness this plasticity to great effect in a whole host of ways – like managing pain, overcoming problems or recovering from injury. The neural pathways that are our ‘wiring’ – transmitting the information we need to function – can be created, adapted, down-graded or up-graded depending on what we do, directly altering the way we function.
When we learn a new sequence of notes on the piano or guitar, for instance, our brain creates new pathways. Equally, if we forget a telephone number a pathway once connected to this memory may well have been down-graded or even severed. It all goes to show how much ability we have to influence our nervous systems; to improve or strengthen existing pathways, create new ones or even, in some cases, get rid of ones that are getting in the way of progress. All we need to do is to learn how to take full advantage of these abilities.
Like riding a bike, this isn’t something we can necessarily do overnight. But our ability to re-establish pathways based on previous learning can be very helpful. It certainly helped me avoid serious injury when I started cycling again last year after a gap of almost a decade !
In some cases like this, our learned response gets in the way. If we text someone at 9 o’clock every morning asking them to bring us milk it won’t take long for them to do this almost automatically. So much so that if, after three months of this, we asking for juice instead they’ll probably just bring us milk as normal, assuming that’s what our usual 9 am message was asking for. Essentially, they’ve stopped listening to the actual message – the neural stimulus – and continued to respond with what they assume to be our desired response.
Pain is our body’s warning of a perceived threat or danger. When we suffer from persistent or chronic pain we often start to react to normal/non-dangerous stimuli with a pain response. We stop listening to the stimulus – which could be as simple as someone brushing our back or a vibration on the bus – and we respond in a way that we’ve learnt to; with a muscle spasm, pain, reduction in movement or all three. Our nervous system has become over-sensitive.
Understanding both what pain means and that we are always able to change our neural pathways and relearn how to manage it and return to activity is important part of the recovery process. We also need to appreciate the effect responses to stress have on our bodies and how much our thoughts can fuel our physiological state, enabling us the decrease our nervous system’s sensitivity to pain.
One of the most crucial keys to overcoming chronic pain is to learn to move and function normally again. More than anything else, this will help us reduce our pain sensitivity.
It requires us to retrain our minds as well as bodies and it will take time. But it will also pay handsome dividends. All because our brains are plastic and we have the tools to mould them to achieve the change we want.