The glistening surface on the car roof only triggered confusion. It wasn’t until I reached the end of the driveway that I realised it was raining. That ended that attempt at a walk.
I had forced myself to this point. Not physically. The feet don’t hurt that much. No, I was mentally convincing myself, reminding myself repeatedly, that I enjoy going for a walk.
Given how much I enjoy nature, why am I not desperate to get out there at every opportunity?
The link between pain and novelty-seeking
A recent article on the ABC Science website offers a possible explanation. The heading proclaimed “Chronic pain could change your personality”. The researchers compared a small number of people with chronic nerve pain on one side of their face with people without chronic pain. Various tests were run. They found that “chronic pain patients had greater activity in parts of the brain involved in emotions, cognition and behaviour” … particularly in the part of the brain we use in seeking out new experiences.
I found this next bit a bit counter-intuitive. Wouldn’t more activity in that area of the brain imply more new experiences, not less? However, it turned out that, according to the researcher, “Chronic pain patients are less likely to want to go out and explore the world”. Avoiding new experiences is itself a brain activity.
The article also suggested that the increased nerve growth in this region might occur because people focus on their pain. The researchers surmised that it was the thinking and worrying that lead to a reduction in novelty-seeking.
Have I experienced chronic pain?
That depends on the definition. According to Wikipedia, chronic pain can be either pain that lasts longer than the expected period of healing or pain that lasts longer than six or twelve months. I don’t think I’ve experienced the former. However, at my age, it would be unusual to avoid an injury that created lengthy periods of pain. I’ve pulled and pinched often enough, from head to toe, to qualify for the latter.
But it’s not the pain; it’s the worry
Have I worried about the pain? Yes.
Have I worried excessively? A critical look in the mirror reveals no creasing and wrinkling of the forehead. However, there are two lines between the eyebrows. Apparently, these are classified as “worry lines”, but I had associated them with the intense thinking involved with problem solving. I’ve spent a lot of time problem solving – at work and while studying.
The “vicious cycle”
I wonder if this is what the article meant when it described the process as a “vicious cycle”? We are forced into problem solving situations whenever we encounter something new. But the act of solving the problem – the worrying, the thinking – wires our brain with an aversion to encountering something new.
Life inevitably throws new things at us, new problems to solve. We don’t have to go looking. We yearn for the comfortable and the easy. They are our pay-off, our reward.
My “Year of” resolutions
So, silly me, what did I go and do? A few years ago, I deliberately plugged myself into this cycle. I created a framework designed to encourage me into new situations. I looked for problems to solve. I called them my “Year Of” resolutions.
This was my response to a growing scientific recognition that avoiding new experiences was unhealthy. The brain requires novelty to maintain vitality as it ages.
I seem to be circling. Activities that could change our brain so that we then avoid them are actually activities that our brain needs for good health. Is there an approach that might overcome the negative in favour of the positive?
I think the aim is to take the viciousness out of the cycle. Thinking is vitally necessary but worrying should be redundant.
Sitting here, today, I don’t feel especially worried about anything. I’m inclined to attribute this blissful state to the beautiful sounds spilling forth from the radio signals sent out by ABC Classic FM.
I seem to be circling again. The central role of music in my life today is the result of my 2010 Year of Music. During those dedicated 12 months, I deliberately got to grips with the new world of digital, mastered my iPod and purchased music I wouldn’t have in the past.
That foray into the new is now helping to remove the viciousness of my forays into the new.
Back to the research that triggered this post … Remember that chronic pain patients were only “less likely” to seek out new experiences. The critical factor is not the pain. The critical factor is how we think.
I thought an appropriate ending to this post would be to declare that “I’ve got my umbrella. I’m off for a walk”. However, I looked at the sky and remembered that the weather report said storms.
No-one said anything about replacing worry with silliness.
♦ An introduction to the “Year of” format for new year resolutions.
Salleh, A. “Chronic pain could change your personality”, published on ABC Science on 27 November 2014.