‘Noticing’ Pain: a Pain Processing Principle

Key to reducing pain is noticing. Noticing is a Pain Processing Principle. Relieving pain may not be an instantaneous act, but with time and practice, you can adapt to a state of mind where your brain can cope with every bump, cut, and injury with ease. When you are experiencing pain, if you register the concept of pain and acknowledge it, you may find that your body can, indeed, manage pain quite exceptionally. Over time, pain processing will be easier.

A baby holding onto an adult's finger.
Hold hands for comfort

When you place your concentration on the signal of pain – distress, your mind can control it, and it becomes a circumstance of mind over matter, and suffering can be diminished, or even eliminated. The human body can handle pain to an extraordinary degree without necessarily experiencing any distress. In fact, your body can become numb in dire survival situations. In these instances, pain becomes a mere neutral sensation instead of an issue of suffering.


Pain Signal 

We almost always take the pain signal for granted. However, if the pain is experienced frequently enough, being with other people and undergoing tasks seems to become overwhelming to the point of being purely mundane and uninteresting. Going to and from work becomes just another routine on autopilot. Your spouse’s cranky demeanor and need to talk about the past becomes such a nuisance—something you are forced to listen to maintain decorum. Your friends become people that you think you know well—or, at least, well enough—so you interact with them according to the past context of everyday situations. You deal with present issues in the same manner that you dealt with them in the past. These are all prime examples of habitual unconscious behavior.

A sign that says "LOOK" on it.
Noticing is not just looking, use all the senses

Your life and the pain that you experience may seem very familiar, as may a life of illness and suffering. Many people live for their suffering. Everything in life becomes a chore when you have less energy due to chronic pain. Life becomes a question of what can and what can’t be accomplished—and most often, it is the latter.

When colleagues or friends tweet or talk about how bored they are, how does that make you feel? Is it jealousy, or something else? Alternatively, maybe you are bed-bound and are fed up with feeling sick and tired all the time. In reality, life is wondrous and mysterious. Your life is remarkable, and even when you are in pain, there are new things to be discovered every day, every hour, even every minute. To become pain-free and to be able to appreciate life, you must learn the art of ‘noticing.’

Art of Noticing

If you want to train your mind in pain processing and not have it result in suffering, you just need to become familiar with all the sensations you experience. Additionally, you need to be able to recognize these sensations and attend to them when necessary. It is much like the well-known tactic of snapping rubber bands or pinching wrists to break habits, as when a new sensation of pain overtakes another, there is a reduction in the initial pain.

Skill of Noticing 

‘Noticing’ is a skill that requires effort in the beginning. You have to possess the patience to look a second time, a third time, a fourth time, or even the thousandth time. It is never-ending because there is always something to capture your attention.

When practicing the ‘noticing’ tactic, expect to falter, to become frustrated, and to stop ‘noticing’ for a while. One must remember, however, to always return to the practice of ‘noticing.’ Life is too intricately rich to disregard anything.

A Story of Noticing
A building with a restaurant on the lower level.
The art of noticing

As I was walking one day in New York City, I noticed a balcony on the side of a building. I had been walking this same route for years, but I had never actually seen that particular balcony. Its worn appearance shot down the possibility of it being newly built. Usually, I walked with my eyes looking straight ahead with some specific thought in mind. I realized I had been walking on autopilot, just as some people drive.

After that day, I was mesmerized. How could I be so unobservant and unaware of my surroundings? Instead, I began to have a noticing adventure. My walks are no longer a blur. As I acknowledged the bustle around me, I noticed several things: workers with cups of coffee in their hands, squirrels chasing one another, a guy bobbing his head to his music. I have always known these elements existed, but I never actually noticed them. So, for fun, I began to wonder about the lives of the people around me. I tried to see the world through their eyes. I even decided to look at the lives of those squirrels, which seem so simple, but I know are not. Now, I mentally jot down the fact that the guy likes to listen to salsa music. These details seem so inconspicuous, but they expand the breadth of my perception of the world.

As I started to practice the art of ‘noticing,’ I notice not just the outside world, but my body as well. I became surprised at just how much it helped my pain level. Today, I practice ‘noticing,’ and, let me tell you: it is challenging, yet satisfying work.

The trials of life, like pain, are a part of living. I am merely asking for you to appreciate more about life than you complain about, that you notice more than you peruse. Regardless of whatever cards you were dealt, everyone has the choice as to what to make out of life and the lives of those around us.

A building with a painting on the front.
Art is all around us – notice – Chinatown, San Francisco

Impatience with your life could be diminished, or even discarded, with the practice of ‘noticing.’ Practice noticing inside and out. Look for that fire escape you never knew was there. Noticing gives you the choice of what to notice. Make it count. Notice kindness, love, and what does not hurt. Be thankful that at least one part of your body is not also in pain.

The science of why noticing helps pain 

The brain’s filters determine how, and to what extent, pain is felt. To control what you are feeling, you need to find a way to manage what it is your brain’s sensors are picking up. ‘Noticing’ is the first way to become aware of on what your mind and body are focusing—on what they perceive and how they are reacting. It is the first step to pain processing.

For example, researchers at Brown University examined the frequency of brain waves in response to physical sensations. The team found that attempts to ignore feelings and senses caused low-frequency rhythms to increase—not only in the area of the brain that deals with a particular body part in question, but also in the area of the brain that ignores distractions. The study’s participants were asked to focus on a specific hand or foot and respond to light taps from the researchers on different body parts, but to not to react physically. Instead, the participant’s brains began increasing the low-frequency rhythms as they struggled to fight the response of the body part being touched. While the brain worked to ignore the distracting touch on one body part, it began working to filter out that physical sensory information. Thus, this science demonstrates how your brain filters everything, including pain signals.

The art of conscious ‘noticing’ reduces pain.

“The range of what we think and do,” psychiatrist R.D. Laing said, “is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change; until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.”


Hwang Kai, Ghuman Avniel S, Manoach Dara S, Jones SR. Luna B. Cortical neurodynamics of inhibitory control. J. Neurosci. 2014; 34(29):9551-61

Jones SR*, Kerr CE*, Wan Q, Pritchett DL, Hamalainen MS, Moore CI. Cued spatial attention drives representation-specific modulation of the alpha rhythm in primary somatosensory cortex. Journal of Neuroscience  2010;30(41):13760-5.

Jones SR. When brain rhythms aren’t ‘rhythmic’: implications for their mechanism and meaning. Curr Opin Neurobiol. 2016 Jul 8;40:72-80. doi: 10.1016/j.conb.2016.06.010.

SR Jones. “The Puzzle of Brain Rhythms”, contributed Path of Discovery Box, in Neuroscience: Exploring the Brain, 4th edition, by MF. Bear, BW. Connors, and M. Pardiso.(2015)

Ziegler DA, Pritchett DL, Hosseini-V. P, Corkin S, Hamalainen MS, Moore CI, Jones SR. Transformations in oscillatory activity and evoked responses in primary somatosensory cortex in middle age: A combined comput. neur. modeling & MEG study. Neuroimage. 2010;52(3):897:912

For more Information

Art of Noticing

Art of Deeply Noticing

From Brown University News

A famous noticer – with a book and website Andrew Forsthoefel – Walking to listen

The Art of Noticing –  Ellen J Langer

Caution – if you are a fan of Langer you will like this book. If not, it may be a disappointment.

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