Your brain, the doctor

Can you instruct your nervous system not to cause you pain?

Dr. John Leonard, a local psychiatrist and neurobehavioral practitioner in Davis, says he can help patients get “conscious control” over their nervous systems.

Dr. John Leonard, a local psychiatrist and neurobehavioral practitioner in Davis, says he can help patients get “conscious control” over their nervous systems.

Photo By mike iredale

My index finger lifts into the air. I’m not lifting it, but up it goes.

Dr. John Leonard smiles knowingly. He’s just trained my brain to automatically lift my left index finger when he says “yes” in a mellow, lugubrious tone.

It’s not voodoo or hypnosis, says Leonard in his Sacramento office, but part of a simple, straightforward mind-body system for communicating with the brain. Once that connection is made, Leonard promises, “You get conscious control over your nervous system,” and can tell the body what to think and feel.

Leonard trains my index finger for “yes” and my left pinkie for “no,” with my middle finger being a “working on it” option. The psychologist and developer of NeuroBehavioral Programs then checks my stress level and walks me through a sampling of the techniques he claims can reduce physical pain and stress, and also enhance general enjoyment.

It’s surprisingly easy, and has only three steps. He’s already done the first by training my fingers to say yes and no. Next, he asks me, “When you’re ready to reduce your stress to zero, will your body indicate yes?” My brain sifts through the question and, quite unbidden by me, I can feel my index finger lift slightly: yes. My body is telling me that I’m ready to get de-stressed.

Then the third, more difficult command: “I want my stress to reduce to zero.”

That won’t be easy. Before our meeting a woman honked her horn inches from my left ear, and I’m still frazzled by the experience. But Leonard’s system definitely does something … and quickly. Within a few minutes my jangled nerves have soothed, my vision has widened and I’ve reduced my stress level significantly. When I try this at home later under various conditions, I achieve the same results.

Leonard says his directives are not New Age affirmations but “instructions to your nervous system.” He claims they can erase or “burn out” highly charged emotions associated with pain—both physical and emotional—that seem hard-wired into the body and mind.

It seems too good to be true. Obviously, I need proof of his claims beyond my own brief experience.

Stanford University’s Dr. Sean Mackey, one of the country’s leading experts in pain management, says pain is a complex mix of physical, emotional and even psychic influences. Mackey, chief of the university’s Pain Management Center, says this “bio-psychic model” hearkens back to prehistoric survival skills.

Imagine a Cro-Magnon man with a cut on his foot, explains Mackey in a speech recorded on the popular San Francisco-based lecture Web site While the tissue surrounding the tiny incision is normal, Mackey says the brain and spinal cord “rewire” the area to extend the sense of pain to the entire foot. The brain’s rationale is simple: Cave men who stayed home with injuries to recover lived. Those who hunted through the pain and fell became a main course on the savannah.

For patients suffering chronic pain, explains Mackey, those neural switches representing “pain” may not turn off. The brain will register pain where none actually exists.

Five years ago, Leonard’s NBP operation was taken mainstream by Hill Physicians Medical Group, a network of 3,000 physicians serving Northern California which contracts with him to treat patients for chronic pain. (Currently, 20 percent of Americans suffer from chronic pain; it is the second most common reason for visiting a doctor.)

Vivian Barron, Hill’s director of integrated health, says historically the health organization has used a variety of alternative therapies to treat chronic pain, including acupuncture, biofeedback and chiropractic care.

“Of all approaches, we have found John Leonard’s approach to be the most efficient and effective,” writes Barron via e-mail. She says the simplicity of Leonard’s approach means it can also be done by phone. Leonard also runs a four-week chronic pain workshop called “Let Your Brain Be Your Doctor.”

“The biggest part is believing,” says David Geremia, a former Sacramento resident who designs and manages high-end pool construction in Los Angeles. For a time, the only thing Geremia believed in was pain. Geremia suffered a fourth major accident in 2005 while climbing rocks on a Bodega Bay beach. After his spinal disk shattered, Geremia sat in a wheelchair with crushed nerves, shaky hands, a fistful of prescriptions, a spinal stimulator and a pain pump.

With all the latest technology inside his broken body, he couldn’t work, he sensed his wife might leave him and he faced constant, excruciating pain.

When Germeia first called Leonard, he whimpered, “The pain is too vicious,” and promised to be the doctor’s best patient ever. Geremia learned the deceptively simple pain-management technique and eventually weaned himself from his pain meds.

“I can block any pain in my body within 30 seconds,” Geremia sighs. “My head is extremely clear. He essentially gave me my life back.” Geremia attributes his success to his own full-throttle belief in Leonard’s NBP system.