Reprogramming My Brain – Take 1


My sister, Tiffany, arrived in Kunming yesterday for the holidays, and I could not be happier!

When the two of us are together you would never know that we are 30 and 32 years old … we revert immediately back to our childhood ways!


Tiffany is a professional yoga instructor, and she arrived in Kunming with a suitcase full of yoga toys for me. She’s planning on helping me work on quadriplegic yoga and roll me around in poses that will help alleviate the pain in my neck and shoulder.

Tiffany recently started a new yoga travel business … … where she travels around the world throughout the year hosting international yoga retreats. Yes, I admit, her adventures do make me a little jealous 🙂

This past week I have taken fresh new steps to addressing my pain issues, both my neuropathic pain and postsurgical neck pain.  These initiatives are based on discoveries made in recent months by my Dad as he drives himself relentlessly to find a way forward for me that does not involve use of pain-killer drugs.

I am beginning to learn how to reprogram the way that my brain interprets pain signals. I have believed for some while now that this is possible, but the initial practical challenge has been finding an actual clinical application to get started.

One new insight had led to another and yet another … Norman Doidge’s “The Brain That Changes Itself” led to Michael Merzenich’s leading neuroscience research and Dr. Merzenich’s recent book “Soft Wired” … and most recently to Les Fehmi’s “Dissolving Pain”.

After reading Dissolving Pain, I have started a journey through guided visualizations called Open Focus …

Les Fehmi is the founding director of the Princeton Biofeedback Center in New Jersey. He is one of the real pioneers in the field of bio-and neuro- feedback.

The concept behind Open Focus is called Flexible Attention, essentially willful control of movement from a narrow focus to a diffuse focus and back again … and this controlled shifting of attention (think of it as attention management) is at the heart of clinical application of the therapy.

Narrow-focus attention, also called narrow-objective focus, is how the vast majority of us pay attention most of the time to anything and everything, and not just visually but with all of our senses. For technically-minded readers,  narrow-objective focus is an emergency mode of paying attention that quickly and substantially increases brain EEG frequency.

As a result of common narrow-focus attention, most people tense muscles to prevent feelings from surfacing in both the mind and the body … and this muscle tensing ferquently creates new pain or exacerbates existing pain.   Almost everyone suffers from overuse of this chronic narrow-objective attention to some degree, predominantly due to emotional stress.

Open Focus Therapy offers a series of guided visualization recordings that help a patient gain power over pain by changing how you pay attention.

Over decades of basic research as well as clinical experience, Les Fehmi has proven that these kinds of attention exercises change the frequency of neuronal activity, which alters the experience of pain.  In other words, it turns out that the most significant factor at the root of pain is a hypersensitive and unstable brain.  Open Focus training engenders a more stable brain.

Dr. Fehmi illuminates an especially important insight called “Rigid Attention Theory” that explains the epidemic of chronic pain in our culture and the fact that much, if not most, of this pain has no detectable physical origin.

Neuropathic pain is a perfect example.  Narrow-focus attention causes people to avoid dealing with particular feelings and related pain issues, as a result of which our nervous system goes into over over-drive, creating muscle tension and blood flow disturbances, which in turn lead to manifestation of auxiliary pain.

Modern medicine has not historically acknowledged that the mind can so profoundly influence the body, and so physicians are not trained to pay close attention to the connection between pain and emotions.

Chronic pain sometimes has, of course,  a physical component and treating an injured muscle by stretching or with other medical interventions sometimes helps, at least temporarily.  Heck, I can get relief from neuropathic pain with morphine!

Unfortunately, treating only the body can leave behind a neural platform upon which the pain can and very often does rapidly rebuild itself. That’s what we see with neuropathic pain or with so-called phantom limb pain, for example.

So, how do I actually put any of this into practice?

Well, as I mentioned above, Dr. Fehmi has created a dozen or so 30 min. recordings for different pain issues. I listen to these 30 min. recordings twice a day and try to visualize what he is saying in order to change my narrow-focus attention so I can diffuse the pain. I suppose you could call it a form of meditation with the guidance of an instructor talking you through what to visualize.

So, there you have it … engaging with Open Focus training is my first step toward extensively reprogramming my brain.  I will keep you updated as I begin to take purposeful advantage my brain’s inherent plasticity … and as I start to re-draw my brain map, which presently harbors such a persistent and debilitating pain image.

This is challenging to explain, of course.  But in practice I sense it will get easier over time, and the prize — getting back working control of my life — seems to me worth all the trouble!

4 responses »

  1. Thinking of you, Ali! These are exciting possibilities…all of your work (and your dad’s) is going to help more than just you, I’m sure. But let’s help you first! 🙂

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