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This is part of the background information by Sylvia Engdahl for her science fiction novel Stewards of the Flame. If you don't see a menu on the left, please click here and then on "Mental control of pain."

People Are Learning Volitional Control of Pain Via Brain Feedback

I wrote the first (largely unchanged) draft of Part Two of Stewards of the Flame back in 1989 and then put the story away because it then had no plot and I didn't know how it would end. I returned to it in 2005 and finished it in the fall. Just two months later, in December 2005, a report that people were being taught to control perception of pain through real-time brain scanning was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and widely covered by the media. I was astonished to learn that my basic premise had been proven valid.

The concept of feeling pain without minding it is not new. I had heard of it long before and had used it in The Far Side of Evil, where it was significant to the plot; the reason I elaborated on it in the new book was that one of my aims for the story was to explore how the mental capabilities of the very advanced people in my earlier novels might originally develop. But that this could be accomplished through visual feedback from the brain was simply something I imagined. I didn't expect it to happen in the near future. And of course, it has not yet happened to the extent that it does in my story. The real-life research is done only with mild pain, which is merely lessened by the training; a state of not minding it at all is not the goal. (I suspect that as I stated in the book, it would require the shock of severe pain, and probably the telepathic aid of the instructor, to accomplish this, and that therefore it won't be achieved by the kind of experimentation done in our society.) However, the fundamental idea that volitional control over the brain can be gained via feedback seems to have been demonstrated.

Functional MRI, the form of scanning used by the researchers, is an exciting new technology that permits the action of the brain to be actually seen in real time. However, MRI scanners are not practical tools for teaching people to deal with pain, or other emotions, on a large scale. An MRI machine (pictured at left) is very large, very noisy, and requires the subject to remain absolutely still for a long period of time. And it cannot be used, or even approached, by anyone who has any sort of metal implant such as a pacemaker -- or according to some accounts, even a microchip -- as the magnetic field could cause the implant to move and injure the person's body. So it's a long way from the sort of neurofeedback used by my characters. But after all, the story takes place far in the future; considering how fast miniaturization of technology has progressed during just the past few decades, it's reasonable to suppose that brain scanning could be accomplished with mere helmets in an era when interstellar travel is routine.

Links to descriptions of the research:

Seeing Your Pain, Technology Review, July 1, 2006. "The researchers are also doing extensive psychological screening to see if people who easily learn to control their brain activity have identifying characteristics. One of the biggest factors will probably be motivation." This is a detailed personal account.

Feedback: Relief From Chronic Pain May Be a Thought Away, New York Times, December 20, 2005. "People who have chronic pain may be able to reduce their suffering by using brain-scanning equipment that lets them see their brain activity and try to modify it."

Mind Over Matter, With a Machine's Help, New York Times, August 26, 2007. An updated discussion of the research being done by Omneuron today.

Video: Learning to control pain via brain scanning

Control Over Brain Activation and Pain Learned by Using Real-time Functional MRI, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, December 20, 2005. The original paper reporting the research.

Not Minding Pain

Occasionally, people are born without the ability to feel pain. This is a serious disability; in fact such children sometimes die, as they are not able to avoid injuring themselves or to recover from minor injuries by protecting the affected area of the body. Daily life is a constant hazard for them.

The ability to not mind pain is something different. The body reacts normally to pain, but either the pain is not felt consciously -- as is sometimes the case immediately following injury, especially in the case of soldiers in battle -- or it is felt without emotional reaction. This can happen in extreme circumstances; it is known as spontaneous analgesia. In his book Sacred Pain Ariel Glucklich writes, "Pain researchers and many patients know that it is possible to feel pain, to know that it is there, and not really care. Athletes sometimes give strong evidence for this phenomenon." It also happens in some forms of mental illness, hysteria, or religious ecstasy. And as is well known, such a state can be brought about by hypnosis. All of these examples prove that perception of pain depends not on the body, but on the mind.

However, to reach this state deliberately, through volition, is another matter. It is not the same as endurance, and yet the natural reaction of a courageous person is to endure -- which ultimately, if the pain is severe, becomes a self-defeating strategy. Some yogis, fakirs, and shamans do learn to attain it, as have a few others, such as Australian psychiatrist Ainsley Meares. I have from time to time seen references to it, but unfortunately did not record the sources, which I now cannot locate. It is unquestionably a human capability; therefore I believe that in the future, systematic development of it will become possible. My treatment of it in the novel is based on my own speculations about how this might come about, and how it would relate to the development of other capabilities, which I'm now convinced involve the same principle.

Last updated in 2007