Pink Elephants and Motor Neurons

 

That's your best friend and your worst enemy - your own brain. Fred Durst

Have you ever been told not to think of a pink elephant?  If so, what happens, and why? 

If you are like most people, for a while at least, you keep having the image of a pink elephant in your mind. There are a couple of different things going on. First of all, the image is different enough that it sticks with you a bit more than a statement like “Don’t think of a playful puppy," although even that will work!  In the case of a playful puppy, there may be "habituation", which means that the effect of mirror neurons may be somewhat inhibited if the image seems ordinary. In the case of the pink elephant, what is going on with your brain? Most likely, if tested with an MRI, a certain part of your brain would "light up" on the MRI image, and there would be subtle differences before and after the “pink elephant” statement. The pink elephant thought and suggestion would leave an energetic signature, all detected by an MRI.

Of course, this is also an illustration that telling a person NOT to think of something doesn’t exactly work. And in this case it has the opposite effect. As an aside, the lack of efficacy of negative statements should be a lesson to parents that are trying to raise children. Often children go into “pink elephant” mode. Distraction works far better than telling a child to put something out of his mind.

The “don’t think of a pink elephant” statement (trick) has been around for quite a while, certainly preceding the development of MRIs. But MRIs prove what we have always known--mainly that the adage “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is more of an attempt at a good defense mechanism than a statement of fact. Words and symbols do affect our minds, our thought processes, and our lives. For almost everyone, the symbol of a pink elephant is innocuous, but not so other symbols. 

Symbols can both cause both harm and healing. After an acquaintance of mine became violently ill on a helicopter ride in Hawaii, she reported that she became ill whenever people talked about helicopters, or she saw an image of a helicopter. Undoubtedly, upon looking at a photo of a helicopter, her MRI would have lit up the specific part of the brain that was affected by the actual helicopter ride.

There is no greater evidence for the value of visualization in healing than the research that has been done in the past few years on the concept of "mirror neurons" and MRIs which shows that images may retrain the brain to perceive that a particular part of the body is not in pain.

From Science Daily--

Some scientists speculate that a mirror system in people forms the basis for social behavior, for our ability to imitate, acquire language, and show empathy and understanding. It also may have played a role in the evolution of speech. Mirror neurons were so named because, by firing both when an animal acts and when it simply watches the same action, they were thought to "mirror" movement, as though the observer itself were acting.

A great deal of research has been done in the past few years on the concept of "mirror neurons" and MRIs which shows that images may retrain the brain to perceive that a particular part of the body is not in pain. Mirror box therapy is used in both phantom limb pain and in treatment for osteoarthritis. A patient with a left hand with arthritis would put the unaffected right hand in the mirror box, which then makes it appear as if it is the left hand.  Merely observing the right hand moving without pain in the mirrorred image actually alleviates the pain of the left hand.