OK, I have to admit that I’m a sucker for documentaries like National Geographic’s Incredible Human Machine. I am completely enamoured by the complexity and adaptability of our bodies that make it a subject that never gets old. Although I felt a bit like I was back in Mr. Hallum’s high school science class, it was quite interesting throughout the duration. In fact, anything that shoves a camera down Steven Tyler’s throat while he’s screaming “Dream On” is pretty incredible to watch. However, one particular segment caught my attention.
In the section about the brain, I was intrigued by the story of Kimberlee Lizarraga, a woman who has chronic pain after a car crash. She didn’t suffer any brain trauma in the accident and all her injuries have since healed. However, the pain lives on, but “her pain lives only in her brain.” But Kimberlee is learning to control it. In the words of the Stanford doctor, he states “[pain] robs our soul, it robs who we are.” Interesting. Using fMRI technology for brain scans, her pain is represented by flames.
“By simply thinking about putting the flames out, Kimberlee is for the first time, putting her pain out…By simply thinking about it, we can change the activity of our brains. We show that we can focus on a particular region, a particular area, and control that…We really can control and change our brain.”
This just confirms everything I already know from experience of running barefoot on rocks all the time, but it was most evident during a moment of realisation that I had sometime last year: I was going about things the wrong way. Up to that time, my goal was to keep making things painful so eventually I wouldn’t feel the pain. Somehow, I guess I thought I would grow numb or something. But I had plateau’ed for a while. Everything I had been doing for several months still hurt just as much. My feet didn’t seem to be responding any more. Then, I realised that the “pain” was never going to go away. I realised I had to train my brain to know that those same feelings that I perceived as pain weren’t really painful at all, they were normal. It’s been a slow process. Since then the feelings registering with my nervous system still haven’t changed much, but I believe my perception of what they feel like have. Much of this was just acknowledging facts about my experience up to this point.
For instance, I know that I can run on sharp rocks for several miles at a quick pace and my feet will be just fine. I won’t cut, bruise, maim, sever or otherwise hurt my feet. However, after years of always wearing shoes, my brain and nervous system is telling me something very different, “Hey, what the heck are you doing?! This can’t be OK?! Stop it! Stop it! Stop it! You’re going to hurt yourself!” But the reality is that I’m not gong to hurt myself. My feet are made to do exactly what I’m telling them to. In fact, I’d done the same thing over and over without an injury. So, why should it hurt? Maybe it doesn’t? Maybe, it’s all in my head?
Since I started running barefoot, I always wondered how people that grew up in places where they are always barefoot (especially Kenya where the climate is similar to Colorado Springs) could handle the pain. But now, I think they probably don’t “feel” much differently. Their perception of what we are both feeling is hugely different from my perception though. They’ve always had those feelings on the bottoms of their feet, so their brain registers it as “normal.” My brain on the other hand registers those same feelings as abnormal since I’ve never felt them. It’s just a matter of retraining: really knowing that what I’m feeling isn’t abnormal at all.
Like Kimberlee, I now wonder how much of my barefoot pain lives only in my brain. How much different is our chronic need for shoes than Kimberlee’s chronic pain? Is it all in our heads? My guess is that it isn’t all in our heads, but much more of it is than we’d like to admit and are willing to find out about.
Shoes Are Cheating…retrain your brain and put the flames out.