Matthias, maybe we could start with neuroplasticity. One of the best sites online on this topic is On the Brain.com. The brain seems to be, basically, a big learning machine. One learns, slowly, to take control of its plasticity. The frontal lobes of humans are not fully formed until into the third decade of life.
What does neuroplasticity have to do with Pain?
You could say pain can happen if/when neuroplasticity gets out of control. Pain is noted as being a "dark side" of neuroplasticity. But, if the brain can learn its way into pain, it can learn its way back out.
I recently watched a PBS program (and took a few notes) on the topic of neuroplasticity in general and aging in particular - how to keep one's brain young, and how to help it if it became damaged. It featured Dr. Merzenich from the site mentioned higher up. According to the program, four fundamentals had to be in place for gaining control, "harnessing" this ordinary activity the brain does all the time anyway:
1. The focus, the inner attention, has to be on the process of learning the action, not the desired action itself.
2. The heart has to be in good shape. Cardiovascular capacity needs to be there. The brain needs lots of oxygen when it's in learning mode. Deep breathing can help.
3. Training must be incremental, and just a little bit taxing. (Does this not sound just like any form of "exercise"?) The brain will build itself best on a sense of consistent accomplishment.
4. The desired goal needs to be interesting.
The program listed seven tenets of neuroplasticity.
1. Change can occur only when the brain is in the mood: alert, on the ball, ready for action.
2. Change strengthens connections between neurons engaged at the same time. The brain builds on its successes.
3. "Neurons that fire together wire together" (-Donald Hebb, psychologist from McGill Uni. Montreal) This helps the brain get better at its predictive capacity. Associations can be made more easily.
4. Initial changes are just temporary. While the brain can learn through impact (a powerful experience), usually it learns through lots of repetition.
5. Brain plasticity is a two-way street; it can change itself in positive or in negative directions. E.g., chronic pain, bad habits
6. Memory is crucial for learning. Where you put your attention is important. Practicing something while distracted won't help the brain change.
7. Motivation is a key factor. The program told the story of Paul Bach-y-Rita's father, who sustained a huge stroke. Eventually he learned to get around, crawling at first - his motivation was that he hated being dependent. He gradually recovered most of his function! Later, after an autopsy, Paul Bach-y-Rita was able to see his own father's brain, could see how enormous the damage had been, and marveled at the recovered function his father had gained.
Also featured on this program was Sharon Begley, who has written a book called Train your Mind, Change your Brain, which I am currently reading. It reads like an historical novel, a huge wedge of perspective back through time into all the scientific background leading up to current research on neuroplasticity, some of the best neuroscience news in the last twenty years. In a nutshell: if your brain has "learned" pain, it can "unlearn" pain.
Matthias, I think each one of these points could probably grow into a whole post series, but I'll just leave it here for now. If you think this is a good jump off point, feel free to expand.
P.S. (Dec. 15):
Here are a couple of Dr. Ginger Campbell's podcasts on neuroplasticity:
Brain Science Podcast #10: Neuroplasticity- how our brains change throughout our lives - (discusses the Sharon Begley book, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain)
Brain Science Podcast #26: More on Plasticity-an interview with Dr. Norman Doidge (Doidge has written a book on neuroplasticity called The Brain that Changes Itself.)