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Workshop - I've Changed My Mind
Written by Alex   
Wednesday, 26 August 2009 00:06

16. Advanced Applications Level 1 (Hacking pain...and Not Hacking pain...)

Hacking pain

Hacking the pain system may seem counterproductive. If you've had arthritis for twenty years though, or you're recovering from injury, it can be rather useful to be able to reduce the amount of drugs you need to kill pain. A further use is for painful infections, as anyone recovering from shingles would agree. Hacking pain is also (more rarely, but I'm sure the military would approve) useful for those unfortunate persons who get into a position where the agents really do want the mainframe codes and are prepared to cheerfully hurt them to achieve this. Less pain experience in trauma also lessens the likelihood of PTSD.

Let's take a look at what gives us our sensitivity... How do we perceive pain in the first place?

In it's acute state, (for example when the happy cat sitting on your lap suddenly plunges its claws into your thighs, or you whack your thumb with a hammer), physical pain is localized and transient and shows clearly a direct stimulus-response link. Pain in medical situations though, is almost always persistent and chronic. In association with pathological conditions it is also pointless, and this is where we come to appreciate the usefulness of analgesic hacking perhaps the most.

...If I stick a fork into my leg1, what happens? Tissue damage results in the release of a whole bunch of chemicals at the site of injury, including hormones and neuroactive factors. Many of these stimulate the sensory neurons (nociceptors) which carry pain signals to the CNS. There are two main sorts of nociceptors, myelinated (approx. 30%) and unmyelinated. The myelinated kind (large diameter) sense sharp and prickling kinds of pain and the unmyelinated kind (small diameter) carry dull or burning pain. Both kinds carry pain signals from the site of injury, to synapse on interneurons in the dorsal horn of the spinal cord.

Nociceptors are varied. They can have a different speed of conduction, different neurotransmitters, receptors, and ion channels, and a difference in capacity for sensitization. Action potentials transmitted to the dorsal horn ascend in the spinoreticular tracts via the reticular formation, through the brainstem, and arrive in the intralaminary nuclei of the thalamus. Projections from the thalamus terminate in the somatosensory cortex. The pathway from here networks with the posterior parietal cortex, insular cortex and amygdala, the perirhinal cortex and the hippocampus. The spinoreticular tracts are networked with the ACG, the amygdala and the hypothalamus. (Pain from the head and face is transmitted via the trigeminal nerves that synapse in the trigeminal nucleus of the brainstem, the fibers ascending to the thalamus along the trigeminal lemniscus). As it comes in, pain is subject to a great deal of modulation.

The mechanisms of acute and chronic pain are different. When the cat sticks its claws into your leg, the ascending pain signals are modulated by afferent signals from touch receptors (which is why rubbing the affected area seems to lessen the pain). Nociceptors release glutamate and substance P, which stimulate NMDA and AMPA glutamate receptors, and NK1 neurokinin receptors on spinal output neurons. In a chain reaction from NMDA receptor activation, adenosine and nitric oxide are released. Both of these are strong mediators of pain.


In chronic pain, the unmyelinated nociceptors fire repetitively, leading to activation of NMDA receptors, kinase release affecting gene transcription, and consequently a change in the nociceptors themselves which makes them more sensitive to subsequent input. This is 'sensitization'. It can cause permanent changes in the dorsal horn, whereby myelinated nociceptors form extra synaptic connections, and it can lead to an altered pain threshold in both the thalamus and the spinothalamic tracts. This means the more chronic pain we are subjected to, the more we feel it.

Our pain threshold is partly genetic;R40 people with an extremely high pain threshold often lack a protein which regulates the production of dynorphins, one of the brain's natural painkillers. Without the protein, people produce far more dynorphins, and can tolerate quite a lot of physical pain. But with the protein, (most of us), we can't, without passing out and/or going into shock.

There are in fact neurohacking reasons for adjusting pain. Sensitization is also a side effect of learning / memory enhancement.

We are designed so that we structure our early like/dislike responses around what feels immediately pleasant or unpleasant in a sensory motor way. Only later do we make aesthetic choices determined by retrospective or prediction, or through the language of higher functions. At first, we are in the 'here and now', and everything is full body knowing. Our locus of consciousness is at first based in the old brain, and this is the language it knows best. Our ability to detect something pleasant or unpleasant accurately and associate it with a stimulus is the most basic kind of learning, and of course we need to be able to remember what those stimuli are, in the service of survival. The better we are able to remember the more likely we are to survive, but the more sensitive we are likely to be to pain. And our sensitivity is literally down to the amount of active NMDA receptors we have. So, the more we increase their activity, the faster we can learn, but the greater will be our sensitivity to pain (in the acute sense, a wasp sting will still feel like a wasp sting, but in the chronic sense, pain will be more intense and will last longer.) Neurons exposed to chronic pain signals become hypersensitive, causing pain to linger on long after the physical body seems recovered. By enhancing learning and memory networks, we can literally end up suffering from the memory of pain! Sensitization occurs because of the changes in gene transcription, and the effects of this gene transcription are the production of new pain sensing receptors and new pain signaling neurotransmitters, hence the increased sensitivity.

Nobody wants to end up eating painkillers with every meal, and getting around this situation in advanced neurohacking has until recently been a problem. Over one and a half thousand genes are affected by pain, so at first glance trying to hack it looks like a needle-in-haystack job, however, the kinases affecting them are often broad spectrum, and this is where to go in.2

Our targets for hacking are two little kinases called Smith and Jones (really they're called ERK and PKC-gamma). Both are major players in sensitization. Blocking their activity prevents the transcriptions that enable sensitization, and, perhaps more impressively, reverses them if they have already taken place.

However, blocking ERK in the midbrain also buggers up memory formation, so that's only usable locally, for example in the spinal cord. But PKC-gamma does not have this problem. There's a PKC-g blocker being tested on rats at the moment (Nov. 03), so it's a good time to keep rats in the lab, if you live in a country that forbids self-experimentation.

First results are impressive: For example, 'David' is a white male lab rat aged 33 who recently fell off his motorbike, suffering multiple fractures to both his paws. When we met he was suffering from chronic pain sensitization, and was on seriously large doses of co-codamol, diazepam, and sleeping tablets. He felt like shite (you can tell, with rats, by looking at their sad, hairy little faces), and both his wrists were still hurting. With a very small amount of PKC-gamma blocker (dosage for a dozen average sized rats being the same as for one very large rat) he was able to drop the other drugs completely within two days, and was using a mouse within a week. (...To play with. In his cage.) This hack didn't affect his capacity for learning, which is convenient. David seemed as smart as usual and felt fine, unlike the zombie he had been on drugs. So at first glance I'd recommend this method for advanced n-hackers who come across the sensitization problem.

There is another way of hacking pain...but it's not for the fainthearted. Ultimately, what we like or dislike emerges from our personal experiences of attraction or repulsion, delight or disgust, pleasure or pain. There are two aspects to all of these, physical and emotional, and our tolerance thresholds for each will be different. Some people can ignore physical pain to a large degree but cannot tolerate much emotional stress at all. There are some people who don't feel pain in the usual way because of damage or malfunction, but perhaps the most intriguing group of all, because they can give us a clue here, are those who most certainly do feel pain, but who enjoy it...these people have learned to do by accident, what we can learn to do on purpose... Change their perception of input at will, on a sensory motor level. Masochists do this by associating pain with sexual desire, and in much the same way as conditioning works, we can learn to make that association by experiencing both together until the association is made.... The chance to interview a masochist is quite a rare one, (and we're proud of this, as we have obtained such an interview, the edited transcript of which is at the end of this chapter.)

From our masochist's point of view, the altruistic tenet, 'Treat others as you would like to be treated', is quite blatantly a joke. But in many other situations such ethics are equally incongruous to the receiver. Never assume another person enjoys what you enjoy. If you're in the same matrix it's more likely, but by no means a certainty. Neither does having a matrix in common with someone imply similar sensitivity. (I met an interesting professional boxer once who could take any amount of beating and gore, but passed out cold at the sight of injection needles). So if you want to explore pain the masochists' way that's up to you but don't expect anyone else to be coming to any of your parties.

Not hacking pain

The perception of pain influences brain activation; obviously in regions associated with sensory motor input but also in regions associated with emotion and imagination, memory, attention and cognition. Previous experience and social indoctrination here kick in and further transform perception. Expectation certainly alters our perception of pain. So does how the pain begins or ends. But there is more than socialization to the connection between pain and activation of these brain regions because it turns out that pain, pleasure, learning and memory are all inextricably linked.

'Thresholds' in general become an issue for various reasons in neurohacking, more or less as soon as you notice the first improvements ...because the first thing you start to wonder after you realize it's actually working is, how far can you go? Just how much can you enhance or augment intelligence? How smart are humans supposed to be? ...The real answers to that are, we don't honestly know, because limits keep getting broken and new abilities discovered. Currently our development is of course limited by biological death, but all indications are that the body gives out long before a healthy mind. If you immediately think, oho, but what about Alzheimer's, dementia, senility...ask yourself, what kills and weakens brain cells? Non-use and cortisol are the biggest culprits.R41 The brain atrophies just like the body if it isn't used. And plastic surgery can't disguise that, fortunately, just as corsets and bras can't improve muscle tone.

How far can we go? Obviously we all have individual limits within the broad spectrum of intended human mental ability, some bestowed by genetics, others by experience and personality. These are our own personal thresholds, our own limits and boundaries. One of my mottoes has always been 'accept no limits', but this must be put into the proper context. We must have the solid reality of our own limits in our scopes before we can think about altering them. It seems obvious that we have to know we're afraid of heights, for example, before we can try to get over it, but not knowing is exactly the sort of problem most people face...they have no idea what they are afraid of, or even that they are afraid. All of it gets blamed on externals. Consequently they cannot assess their potential because they do not know where they are on the ladder of development in the first place. Pushing limits by solving problems is the aim, but denying that either problems or limits exist is delusional.

We're taking a closer look at pain here though for another reason. Pain is a great temporal lobe emotion stimulator, because the stress/relaxation response networks overlap with those of the temporal lobes. Before there was TMS or NMT or even LSD, pain and desire and the odd bit of spotty fungus were the only things that could make such an impression on us, and, as one might expect, people were using them to get high. Humans have been neurohacking forever, and one of the first reasons was to explore what happened to their minds, when they ate or smoked those 'magic' weeds...and did some incredibly strange things to themselves, with starvation and fish hooks, dancing and chanting.

We've had little logical or even coherent explanation of what this was all really about until the advent of modern scanning techniques, because those mainly interested in doing it these days tended to be religious nutcases, schizophrenics, or mystical 'shaman' weirdoes who sucked toads and suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy and went on about talking to dead people and so on.

What the original practitioners were actually doing is invoking the production of hormones that could change their minds, by manipulating networks in the temporal lobes, hypothalamus, hippocampus and amygdala. Before religion kidnapped it, temporal lobe emotion was as much a part of human pleasure, and as important to the survival of intelligence, as sex is now.

Some of these hormones do very strange things to your mind. Things a mixture of heroin and LSD might achieve with a dash of MDMA for luck. Most people experiencing a temporal lobe emotionally powerful experience without drugs blame it on god, for various reasons. Firstly, it really feels as though it is coming from the outside, which is partly what is so alarming in schizophrenia; the voices (and even visuals) do not seem internal at all. Sometimes the whole locus of consciousness seems displaced, which is what people think of as an 'out of body experience'. It isn't, of course. You can blame it on your brain. You can invoke these effects with TMS, NMS, biofeedback and/or drugs, and enjoy them at your leisure.

The ultimate link between learning, temporal lobe emotion, and pain is of course memory, and our earliest use of the midbrain is to assist in producing for us a usable map of the world according to nasty and nice. This is all pervasive, if the midbrain works as it should, it will find some degree of attraction and repulsion, no matter how small, in everything. Mine, for example, if I really go and look, is fond of blue and mauve, dislikes the number 2 or letter B, and really can't stand some shades of yellow, or the sound of the word 'betty'. There's no apparent logic in these choices because they are linked by prejudice of association, and the more your individual database grows the more this is so. Tastes will change with the weighting, as this or that item is tossed here and there by experience, but the midbrain takes it's choices very seriously. When you are two or three years old it can really matter if your cereal bowl is the wrong color (much to the distress of baffled parents), because you are trying to impose your likes and dislikes on the world, and test your personal power to affect change. If such tests fail to achieve the desired result, we'll keep trying, and usually complaining, until we find a way to influence our world. Some people never do, and spend their time continuing to complain, and trying to convince others that their personal choices are best, or relying on others for advice, unable to make decisions for the rest of their lives. The thwarting of the like/dislike response is like a knife in the ACG...the planning department, which relies on our having a solid foundation on which to base its concepts. Without that, it cannot plan, predict, or assess, and consequently cannot strategise or control the flow of events.

As was noted earlier, most young animals have a number of 'given' concepts at birth on which to base the rest. We, with our ability to form new concepts by ourselves to such a high degree, are left to form most of ours through experience. Our environment can vary greatly and nature expects it and our parents to teach us the 'nice' and 'nasty' things as we go along, much like our language and our emotional set. Given the correct input, our likes/dislikes conform to rules based on our own well being, and our own and our culture's archetypes, and we are given these concepts via triggers. Colors and sounds and shapes all make us exhibit a physiological response, some overt, as when a loud noise makes us jump, some subliminal, like pheromones drifting up our noses. But like language and emotion, these triggers are subject to plasticity. We can learn to be afraid of things that are really not a threat, and learn to like things that are really not very nice. Nature can be lied to. Consequently this midbrain mapping has been quite fundamentally skewed by 'society'. Not having access to the logical rules and computation underlying the mid brain's cognition, we have no reason to suspect this and miss it completely. Nature expects the truth. We are literally evolving away from such adept mid brain cognition.

If you recall for a moment that the whole basis of our personalities rests upon such things, it is quite chilling to see how we are undermining ourselves and chipping away at intelligence, by failing to realize what is beneficial to it and what is not, and when. A balanced, healthy personality only arises when the correct input is given, and when the correct input is not given it creates anxiety. As a constant, low level, underlying theme. The result? Unbalanced, unhealthy personalities.

...And the things that we fear, are a weapon to be used against us3

Anxiety flattens intelligence. A very part of the reason for memory failure in old age is our being subjected to unresolved stress for most of our lives. Excess cortisol is a time bomb; it builds up over the years. Elderly people have as much as three times the level in their bloodstream than your average twenty-year-old. This is not meant to happen and this high concentration of cortisol literally prevents any new neuronal tissue from being formed. It most certainly contributes to senility and neurological disorders. Humans do have the capacity to grow new neurons throughout life; it is just so rarely seen because stress hormones usually block that capacity.

In most people, the stress/relaxation cycle fails to occur. We get stress that cannot be resolved by relaxation, and we get apathy, which cannot be roused by inspiration. People either don't care about anything (apathy) or take everything far too seriously (anxiety), or fluctuate between the two. COMP cannot function.

...And this is the reason for not hacking pain: the whole point of pushing at the unknown is pushing at the threshold of fear. We have to try to increase the amount of fear we can take on board and resolve without producing excess cortisol. Doing that makes us less vulnerable to anxiety in our everyday lives; we get an overall perspective; it also helps protect us in a crisis, and frees us up for further neurogenesis. Initiating the production of ACTH on a regular basis and turning it off again is the master key to fast learning, intelligence augmentation and optimal mental health. Experience grows your brain.

The stress/relaxation cycle is why some people feel high after a scary or thrilling experience. ACTH activates the dopamine system, unless we're too afraid. If we can then initiate the relaxation half of the cycle we'll feel deeply satisfied and contented.

A classic BS meme in gymnasium workout circles is 'no pain, no gain'. On the purely physical exercise level, this is complete nonsense. But as far as exploring the unknown is concerned, it is true. This is one aspect of n-hacking that is RNVN4. We can deliberately program ourselves for habituation (slowly accustom ourselves to facing anxiety and overcoming it) whilst turning the amygdala down and blocking sensitization at first, and then once the networks are established, use ACTH to produce extensive synaptogenesis, but this will only work if we can initiate the relaxation response soon enough afterwards. As the ancient trippers knew, pain is one way to trigger the full cycle of stress/relaxation.

...Right about now is where you may start thinking, 'why oh why didn't I take the blue pill?'... Just remember that none of this is compulsory, okay?

'Habituation' is the process that allows us to ignore ticking clocks (unless they suddenly stop). It occurs when a stimulus is no longer considered a possible threat, or of any importance for any other reason, and we cannot usually habituate if the stimulus is unpredictable or if we consider it important or dangerous. We tend to prioritize pain of any kind, because it is a danger signal. Biology knows that when there is danger we may need not only to act quickly but also to learn fast. Hence the ACTH and synaptogenesis, the attention-focusing alertness, the enhanced ability to perceive. As we assimilate the unknown the process should reverse; the relaxation circuit allows us to feel reward, comfort, fulfillment.

The relaxation response may explain a lot about the appeal of heroin, because this is one way to turn it on. Fortunately there are others. Buddhist-style meditation is one way, although it takes a long time to learn. Being in love is another. The 'excitement' network is active early on in the experience of love, and the relaxation response itself kicks in later in the progression of a relationship (I said there were nice bits). Biofeedback is another method, and this way you learn the process as well as the experience. Several other drugs achieve the effect, but should only really be used in training for eventual drug-free DIY methods.

As I said, I believe that we are designed to flow through the cycle of stress/relaxation repeatedly throughout life, and constantly be learning something new. The more of the unknown we face, the more excited we get, the more we will have to assimilate; the more we will need sleep, dreaming and the relaxation response. Otherwise, memory will not keep pace with input, and much may be lost.

We can use the trick of deliberately experiencing new unknowns to push at fear. The more we can do this and return to calm, the more we can increase our ability to interact. That's exactly what kids are practicing and playing at with ghost stories...pushing at fear. We should never stop playing that game; we should always be prepared to boldly go. Yes, it means taking risks, they are well-calculated risks based on sound evidence but they still are risks; that is reality. I find that risk improves my quality of life, but so does relaxation.

This is why we need to know our thresholds in reality... how much sleep we need, how much we personally need to eat... How much dodgy input can we handle before we start feeling bad, how much can we indulge ourselves before we're sick, how much pain can we handle before we pass out, how much can we resist various temptations, what arouses us, what disgusts us, what we truthfully believe. And how much we are prepared to give, to get what we want. These are your choices for you personally and I will only say two things...(1) The more you know about yourself, the greater your control. And (2) The more intense the experience, the stronger the memory.

Interview with the Victim

Nikita Hakashaga is a practicing masochist, who derives erotic pleasure, excitement and relaxation from pain. She agreed to answer some questions for us after we tied her to the bed (joke). She did kindly agree to do a live interview. Nikita would like to use her real name but cannot, masochism being illegal in her country. Here is an excerpt from the transcript:

[Interviewer] So, Ms Hakashaga, you're a masochist... That means you enjoy feeling pain...or is it more specific than that?

[Ms Hakashaga] Oh, I enjoy feeling pain whilst I'm having sex, but not if it's like headaches or stomach aches or stuff...

[Interviewer] ...So, d'you always find sex is better with pain, or is it an in the mood thing, you know like sometimes maybe you'd want sex on its own, or...?

[Ms Hakashaga] Well, I like variety, so...I mean, it's never a bad thing...I mean any kind of sex is really good, you know...? And it's always better if I'm in the mood for it. However...I can change my mood quite quickly, so if I'm not in the mood for it at the start...then, ah...

[Interviewer] ...you might be working on it...?

[Ms Hakashaga] Mmm, yes...

[Interviewer] ...You said you don't like headaches, and things like that, so it does matter, what sort of pain it is...?

[Ms Hakashaga] Yes, well I mean it's kind of more specific than that, because it's associated with an event, with what's happening at the time, so it's nice if it's immediate.

[Interviewer] So, acute pain is better, than like, long term chronic sort of pain?

[Ms Hakashaga] Yes, yes.

[Interviewer] But you don't have ... preferences or favorite kinds of pain or...?

[Ms Hakashaga] I like being whipped, I like being scratched, I like being bitten...

[Interviewer] Okay, but you wouldn't like being beaten up, or anything like that?

[Ms Hakashaga] Definitely not.

[Interviewer] Do you prefer pain before sex, during, or afterwards?

[Ms Hakashaga] Yes! (Laughter)

[Interviewer] D'you like pain when you're not having sex, if it's delivered in an erotic manner? You know, if there can be no sex, 'cos you're in an elevator or something?

[Ms Hakashaga] If it's delivered in an erotic manner, then it is sex, really in a way...

[Interviewer] So, like you wouldn't be offended by, for example, someone painfully pinching your ass on the subway or...?

[Ms Hakashaga] Actually I would be!

[Interviewer] Right, so that's not erotic then?

[Ms Hakashaga] Em, well, I guess that depends who's doing it. It would be completely out of order if it were a stranger.

[Interviewer] Okay that's fair enough...Would you say the pleasure you feel from this is more exciting, like 'desire', or relaxing and calms you down and chills you out, like a 'comfortable' sort of an effect?

[Ms Hakashaga] It's both.

[Interviewer] Together, or one and then the other?

[Ms Hakashaga] Not often simultaneously...

[Interviewer] Yeh, 'cos I mean, it's difficult to be relaxed and excited at the same time...yeh I can see that...but it kind of complements everything then?

[Ms Hakashaga] Yes.

[Interviewer] D'you think you are better able to control pain, than other people in ordinary circumstances...like, if you hurt yourself by accident, can you kind of turn it on and off... have you got any control in that way?

[Ms Hakashaga] Yes, I'd say so, yes...

[Interviewer] Do you ever get to a point when you feel you've had enough, either in endurance or intensity?

[Ms Hakashaga] Well, I mean, you can't be shagging permanently, you have to stop at some point!

[Interviewer] No, I mean, can pain get too much for you, is there a time when you have to say stop?

[Ms Hakashaga] Very rarely.

[Interviewer] Well we've got to our last question here, and basically it's d'you mind if we wire you up to some equipment and do a few tests?

[Ms Hakashaga] No, I don't mind.

[Interviewer] Okay, well, thank you very much for coming along!

1. Don't try this at home, kids!

2. Current standard pain control rests heavily on the blocking of cyclooxygenase with NSAIDs, but these are not only ineffective for severe pain, they also produce nasty side effects and blood clotting problems.

3. From the song 'The Weapon', by Rush.

4. Really Not Very Nice.

Last Updated on Wednesday, 26 August 2009 00:07