Everyone has neurotags, and if you experience chronic pain, a neurotag may play a particular role in your symptoms. Learning about how the brain interprets and adapts to input can help you take steps to manage your pain.
What Is A Neurotag?
There are billions of neurons in a single brain, and each one can form connections with other neurons in order to send signals to specific destinations or to amplify these signals. As a group of associated neurons grows, so does its ability to spread messages throughout the brain.
“Cells that fire together, wire together.”
— Hebbian Theory (read more here)
When any one of your senses picks up a detail of the environment; a smell, for example; entire regions of neurons are activated at the same time. Neurons that have learned to link with each other in the interpretation of a single input collectively form a neurotag. The more relevant the input is to survival, the better capacity it has to communicate large numbers of neurons.
This mechanism explains how certain inputs can reflexively trigger memory. For example, if you smell the perfume you wore in high school, you may experience a vivid recall of sitting in class when you were younger. Or, if you hear a song that was included on a playlist your ex-girlfriend made you, you may instantly feel the emotions you had originally felt in the relationship and break-up.
The brain is extremely complex, but this raises the odds of inaccuracies in processing. Neurotags can be formed and strengthened through coincidence, error, or just repetition.
How are Neurotags Involved in Pain?
When you hurt yourself, the brain interprets damage to the body or pending damage. It is very important that the brain is able to quickly and effectively change your behavior. Thus, pain is extremely efficient in sending messages across all brain regions.
For example, imagine you are having a conversation in your kitchen. Being distracted while speaking, you lean back on a hot stove. Almost instantaneously, you are shocked back into standing upright before even having full knowledge of what has happened. Touching your back and looking around, you experience hyperfocus, stress, and fear at the same time.
Hyperfocus is related to the fight-or-flight response and is meant to increase your chances of surviving a high-risk situation where every second counts.
Stress activates several neural circuits that can alter processes from cognition to metabolism to help you make quick decisions and persevere.
Fear is one of the most well-communicated responses in the brain which can even create intense memories in order to remind you of how to react to similar situations in the future.
Due to pain’s obvious relevance in survival, experiencing this situation a single time alone can be the start of a pervasive neurotag. Eventually, these neurons may fire as a result of any tactile input on your back, or even just the thought of the event.
How Do Neurotags Change Over Time?
- Imprecision and Disinhibition: Among the billions of neurons in the brain, it is very common for some neurons to get occasionally mixed up in the activation process of a reaction.
In other words, imagine you are sitting in a packed ballroom, and a man on stage is shouting constant orders for individuals to stand up momentarily based on the color of their shirt. Over time, you may find yourself standing up by accident, forgetting to sit down, or caring less about pointing out these mistakes in others. Your own inaccuracy is imprecision, and the inability to stop others is disinhibition.
- Facilitation and Sensitization: In contrast to the above, these factors represent an increased efficiency of the pain circuit. If you were sitting in the same crowded ballroom and strived to be attentive, you may find yourself standing and sitting very quickly upon hearing the color of your shirt being called. During a sequence where this color is called several times in a row, you may not even sit down fully between prompts.
Learning to process pain more quickly enhances facilitation, and picking up on quieter or shorter cues is sensitization.
You can read more about how these processes change how you experience pain over time in our previous article on central sensitization.
When you are dealing with chronic pain, there is so much more involved than the physical area of the body. There are implications of emotion, fear, stress, and more — and you deserve a treatment approach that addresses all of your symptoms. Drugs are not able to effectively treat all the problems associated with persistent pain.
Understanding how pain works is one of the strongest tools in getting relief.
Dr. Joe Tatta, DPT, CCN
References 1, 2, 3, 4