Images of pain and the brain

Images of pain and the brain
Pain has always been the most powerful inspiration for creativity, and it’s not hard to think of famous examples that prove this point. For example, Frida Khalo, throughout her entire life, painted about her tram car accident and its disastrous effects on her health and life and Gustav Mahler wrote that his music must have surely been influenced by his poor health.

The brain and mind have also been the source of much artistic creativity over the years, often linked to pain and feelings and attempts to describe how it all works. Neuroscience is now providing its own art with the multicoloured brain images now in many journals.

As part of the Neurodynamics and the Neuromatrix conference in April 2010, Images of Pain and the Brain will represent many aspects of these creative and unique personal explorations of pain and the brain – in the form of paintings or other 2 or 3 dimensional artworks like photography, sculpture, movement or even music.

Electronic PowerPoint displays are planned, as well as an exhibit depicting some of the creative outpourings of those who have been somehow effected by pain, or inspired by the workings of the brain.

Can you help?
We want to involve people in pain, clinicians and their colleagues in this challenge. We know that most clinicians out there at the ‘coal face’ will have patients who paint or draw or who write songs or dance in relation to their pain experience. We know that there are many people who are attempting to represent the brain and mind in various artistic forms.

If you are in pain and express your pain somehow through art it would be great to receive your contribution.

If you are a clinician, look out for some of these people among your patients and let them know about this opportunity. They come in many guises:

Some pain sufferers want to forget their pain, so they paint about other things. People make art or music as a coping mechanism – creativity can distract from pain, can sometimes desensitise a part or objectify what they are feeling.

The creative process can also provide a portal for feelings, a medium to communicate to others so the artist doesn’t feel so alone in their pain. Pain is a lonely thing and isolation is just one of the potential bedfellows of the pain sufferer. Fears and disability help to create walls between sufferers and their friends, life aspirations and meaningful involvement in the wider community. Art may be the only way of expressing this.

The first Images of Pain was an exhibition that ran as part of the ‘Moving in on Pain’ conference in Adelaide, 1995. It was a similar concept and some amazing stories emerged as the exhibition took on a life of its own. One such poignant story illustrated the artist’s isolation, loneliness and anger beautifully.

John’s story
John (I’m not using real names here) had suffered Non Hodgkins Lymphoma when he was 14, and was isolated from the world, his friends and school activities for several months. During this time he began to paint about his isolation and loneliness and his paintings reflected this in empty landscapes and buildings, all completely devoid of life. His parents decided not to tell him his diagnosis, so it wasn’t until long after his recovery when he went for a medical exam for a job in his late twenties that he was told by a doctor. He continued to paint, and became increasingly isolated and angry with his family. At the exhibition his family came and for the first time read and understood his story next to the paintings and they came together and spoke about the illness for the first time.

This story also illustrates the power of creativity – how it can present even the artist with surprising insights that they might not be aware of, nor want to face.

Debbie’s story
Debbie, a sculptor had created an installation where she made a pile of bones in the bush and set fire to them and this was displayed on a banner in Images of Pain. She said she felt empowered by this experience and it made her feel released from the grip of her pain.

Irene’s example
“It is 2am. I had a migraine yesterday and had to have two injections, one of dihydrogot and one of phenergon which made me feel as though I had an electrical charge running through my body, which in turn made me feel rather unable to sleep although I was very tired. I feel it was the phenergon that made me feel this way as I had not had the drug before. This drug also made me extremely thirsty.”

Art, empowerment and neuroscience
The act of painting about a pain or a feeling may give the artist a more complete understanding of it, and it may allow them to feel more in control over it. Putting words or a face to pain can externalise it in a way that potentially enables you to look it in the eye and come to grips with the demons it brings with it, and to actually play with the endings or outcomes in an external space.

In a neuroscience sense, the act of creating material associated with a painful problem requires a representation of the pain and the materials to be activated in the brain – a high energy synaptic activation involving many parts of the brain.  However, the use of art material provides a powerful contextual variation to the brain activity, thus allowing the brain activity to occur without a conscious appreciation of the pain. It essentially exercises the pain associated neurones in the brain in a very healthy way.


Last month’s notes on the problem sprained ankle
Thanks to all of you who sent in some great stories last month. They were so numerous and well written that once again we couldn’t choose a winner between Penny from the UK and Roderick from the US. So congratulations – you have both been sent a Neurodynamics Pack. Here is Penny’s scenario….

Patient: 10 year old girl with a history of 2-3 years of left ankle pain. She complained of it continuously “turning” and swellling with pain. Her response was to protect it and rest it for a few days. A pattern was thus established of her behaviour around pain. She is a very active young lady and loves all sports plus ballet.

She did not complain of any other painful joints. She had become increasingly frustrated about her problem and the ankle pain had begun to effect her level of activity. The mother had not been given any appropriate advice on management apart from RICE. She was now turning her foot several times a day…

Continue to read Penny’s, Roderick’s and many other fascinating, simple neural mobilisation stories.


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