Richard G. Petty, MD

The New Frontier in Brain Control

In the 1970s, many of us in the scientific and medical fields started becoming very interested in the burgeoning field of biofeedback, in which we used monitoring devices to measure certain biological processes, like skin temperature an blood pressure, so that we could then teach people to gain some voluntary control over previously involuntary functions. I remember being particularly impressed that some people seemed to be able to gain some measure of control over epileptic seizures. Much of this interest grew out of some extraordinary experiments conducted at the Menninger Clinic in 1969, when it was still in Topeka, Kansas. An Indian Yogi named Swami Rama was shown to be able to voluntarily stop his heart for between 16.2 and 20.1 seconds, and subsequently others were shown to be able to control temperature, pain and bleeding.
In 1981, I had the privilege of setting up the first biofeedback system in the Department of Neurology at Charing Cross Hospital in London. I was quite astonished when a teenager working on the staff was, in less than 30 minutes, able to learn to increases the temperature of one hand more than three degrees Celsius (5 over in degrees Fahrenheit), compared with her other hand. We tried to use biofeedback in painful conditions and migraine, with some benefit. During the intervening years, there has been continuing interest in the whole field, but we have not seen any real reproducible breakthroughs.
But now, with the advent of new technology, things may be changing. There is an interesting report on the use of functional MRI scanning and chronic pain that was highlighted on the Nightly News with Brian Williams.
The report refers to work being done on chronic pain at Stanford University. When a person with chronic pain imagines the pain to be as bad as bad can be, specific regions of the brain become activated. Then by using an array of relaxation techniques, including breathing, muscle relaxation and thinking pleasant thoughts, the person can watch the over-activity of the brain gradually calm down as their pain lessens.

This is important work for several reasons:

It may well help people with chronic pain to use non-pharmacological approaches to the control of their pain, even if they do not have access to fancy high-tech scanners.
The work is pushing the frontier of what is possible in terms of controlling one’s own body.
It is an amazing confirmation of the teachings of many schools of teaching about health, from yoga and qigong, to Science of Mind.
It raises very interesting questions about who or what is actually controlling the pain: it gets us straight back to the whole question of where is the mind and is it the same as the brain. (The answer to that is NO: a subject for many more entries)
It is important not to lose sight of the fact that pain is often a lot more than aberrant firing of neurons or an imbalance in the some of the serotonin and norepinephrine systems of the brain. It can be brought on or exacerbated by psychological and social factors, and I have seen many people in extreme spiritual crisis, who then began to develop pain in various part of their bodies, yet had no overt signs of depression or of any other psychological or psychiatric problem.
Chronic pain often develops into a “habit,” or what I term a “pain cycle.” This may have both a physical substrate (abnormal firing in circuits in the thalamus of the brain), and a strong psychological component (pain becoming “learned”). Interrupting a pain cycle for even a few hours can often have long-term effects.
There may also be other non-pharmacological approaches that can help an individual. When dealing with chronic pain, it is also important to sort out the effects of medications. However appropriately used, some may have long term effects on the body/mind complex.

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About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

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