Time – and brain chemistry – heal all wounds

By Christie Wilcox | October 24, 2011 12:00 pm

I know I’m not physically hurt. Though it feels like I’ve been kicked in the stomach with steel-toed boots, my abdomen isn’t bruised. Spiking cortisol levels are causing my muscles to tense and diverting blood away from my gut, leading to this twisting, gnawing agony that I cannot stop thinking about. I can’t stop crying. I can’t move. I just stare at the ceiling, wondering when, if ever, this pain is going to go away.

It doesn’t matter that my injuries are emotional. The term heartache isn’t a metaphor: emotional wounds literally hurt. The exact same parts of the brain that light up when we’re in physical pain go haywire when we experience rejection. As far as our neurons are concerned, emotional distress is physical trauma.

Evolutionary biologists would say that it’s not surprising that our emotions have hijacked the pain system. As social creatures, mammals are dependent from birth upon others. We must forge and maintain relationships to survive and pass on our genes. Pain is a strong motivator; it is the primary way for our bodies tell us that something is wrong and needs to be fixed. Our intense aversion to pain causes us to instantly change behavior to ensure we don’t hurt anymore. Since the need to maintain social bonds is crucial to mammalian survival, experiencing pain when they are threatened is an adaptive way to prevent the potential danger of being alone.

Of course, being able to evolutionarily rationalize this feeling doesn’t make it go away.

I lie flattened, like the weight of his words has literally crushed me. I need to do something, anything to lessen this ache. The thought crosses my mind to self medicate, but I quickly decide against that. Mild analgesics like ibuprofen would be useless, as they act peripherally, targeting the pain nerves which send signals to the brain. In this case, it is my brain that is causing the pain. I would have to take something different, like an opioid, which depresses the central nervous system and thus inhibits the brain’s ability to feel. Tempting as that might be, painkillers are an easy – and dangerous – way out. No, I need to deal with this some other way.

Slowly, I sit up and grab the guitar at the foot of my bed.

Where music comes from, or even why we like and create music, is still a mystery. What we do know is that it has a powerful effect on our brains. Music evokes strong emotions and changes how we perceive the world around us. Simply listening to music causes the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter linked to the brain’s reward system and feelings of happiness. But even more impressive is its effect on pain. Multiple studies have shown that listening to music alters our perception of painful stimuli and strengthens feelings of control. People are able to tolerate pain for longer periods of time when listening to music, and will even rate the severity of the sensation as lower, suggesting that something so simple as a melody has a direct effect on our neural pathways.

So, too, does self expression. Expressive writing about traumatic, stressful or emotional events is more than just a way to let out emotion – college students told to write about their most upsetting moments, for example, were found to be in remarkably better health four months later than their counterparts who wrote on frivolous topics. These positive results of self-expression are amplified when the product is shared with others. While negative emotions may have commandeered our pain response, art has tapped into the neurochemical pathways of happiness and healing.

So, I begin to write. At first, it is just a jumble of chords and words, haphazardly strung together. But, slowly, I edit and rewrite, weaving my emotions into lyrics. I play it over and over, honing the phrasing, perfecting the sound. Eventually, it begins to resemble a song:

    (lyrics)

The rush of dopamine loosens the knot in my stomach ever so slightly. For now, the agony is dulled. Still, I can’t help but think that I’m never going to really feel better – that the memory of this moment will be seared into my brain, and a mental scar will always be there, torturing me with this intense feeling of loss.

Scientifically, I know I’m wrong. As I close my eyes, I am comforted by the thought that the human brain, though capable of processing and storing ridiculous amounts of information, is flawed. The permanence of memory is an illusion. My memory of this moment will weaken over time. It will be altered by future experiences, until what I envision when I try to recall it will be only a faint reflection of what I actually feel. Eventually, this pain won’t overwhelm me, and I will finally be able to let go.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Mind & Brain, More Science
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About Christie Wilcox

Christie Wilcox is a science writer and PhD Student at the University of Hawaii, where she studies the protein toxins in venomous fish. She is renowned in the science blogosphere for her delicate balance of contemporary science and scientific perspective seasoned with just the right amount of wit. Her award-winning posts have been featured in The Open Laboratory: The Best Science Writing On Blogs four years running and landed on the pages of major media outlets including The New York Times and Scientific American. To learn more about her life and work, check out her webpage or follow her on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook.

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