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Surprising Science

How a Distracted Brain Works Like a Painkiller

To soften the feeling of pain, distract your mind with another task. Researchers say that investing mental energy elsewhere keeps your nervous system from receiving pain signals. 

What’s the Latest Development?

New scientific evidence supports the advice that keeping your mind off a painful experience, whether physical or emotional, is an effective way to reduce the severity of physical pain you feel. In an experiment at the University Medical Center in Hamburg, Germany, individuals were divided into two groups and then connected to an instrument meant to deliver a burning sensation (at a temperature hot enough to cause pain but not damage the skin). The groups were then given brain puzzles of varying difficulty. Individuals completing the more difficult task registered a smaller pain sensation than those doing the easier puzzle. 

What’s the Big Idea?

Scanning the individuals using fMRI machines, scientists determined that pain receptors along the spinal cord receive fewer signals from the brain when the mind is engaged in a more demanding exercise. Scientists then added a variable to better understand the brain’s behavior. When some subjects were injected with a drug that blocks the action of opiods, “the pain-relieving effects of a distracted brain diminished by 40 percent.” The suggestion is that not only is the mind distracted from pain by concentrating on something else but that it releases opioid-based compounds. So next time you have a headache, take an aspirin and do a brain puzzle to feel better. 

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