BLOCKING PAIN, Part IV: Putting the mind “to sleep”

We will once again be fielding question for Dr. Mailis Gagon who is the Director of the Comprehensive Pain Program and Senior Investigator at the Krembil Neuroscience Centre. If you have any questions you would like to ask our pain specialist, please write to us at [email protected].

Due to the numerous requests she has been receiving, Dr.Mailis Gagnon has created her own website where you will have the chance to learn more about experiences, her practice as well as her work. Please take a moment to visit her website:

In the previous papers we had discussed how the appearance of slow (theta) waves in the brains of fakirs and hook hangers blocks pain. Experienced yogis who practice transcendental meditation, have also been observed to change their fast “alpha” brain waves to slow brain waves. Interestingly, these yogis don’t have to switch to slow brain waves to block pain. All of us display faster “alpha” brain waves during conscious activities. If our dog barks, the door slams suddenly in our ear or the flash of a camera shines in our face, the “alpha” rhythm is interrupted. Transcedental yogis at the peak of their meditation are oblivious to anything that happens to their bodies internally or externally. Strong sounds, lights or pain fail to break down the “alpha” waves. Another way humans and animals possess to block pain, is to release their body’s natural pain killers (called “endorphins”).

Endorphins are “pain blocking” and “feel- good” chemicals, released in our bodies after stimulation of a special network of nerve tissue running from the brain to the spinal cord. This network is also stimulated by drugs such as morphine. Long –distance runners are known to block pain while they experience “runner’s high” (a feeling of euphoria and exhilaration), due to large amounts of endorphins released in their body. Other forms of vigorous exercise as well trigger release of endorphins. While tribal cultures that practice rituals like hook hanging have not been studied, scientists believe that endorphins may play a considerable role at least in some rituals which involve violent dance (simulating vigorous exercise) leading to a state of trance. An example of such “ecstatic” dancing occurs in the Hamadsha tribe of Morocco. The tribal members dance with violent moves, hyperventilate and slash their heads and faces with knives, but do not seem to feel pain.

Most of us are not fakirs, hook hangers, long distance runners or meditating yogis. However, we do possess powerful ways of changing our state of mind. Paying attention to a signal that occurs inside or outside our body (like a painful cramp, a bright light or a strong smell) is a complex process the brain uses to tell “how important” the signal is and react accordingly. The technique of “distraction” known since ancient times, switches attention from one signal to another. If the body signal is pain, “distraction” will block pain. So what can distract us? Almost anything and everything, provided the brain feels it is important to do so because the new event rises high in the priority list. Examples are the thundering sound of a storm, a flashing light, intense hunger, your baby’s desperate cry, winning the Max and being absorbed in an activity you like. In this case, if you are in pain, the pain lessens or is blocked as it slips down the priority ladder.