How do Nerves Work. TEDEd

Here is a nice video about neurones. That this sort of thing is popping up here and there is one of the reasons I think the internet is marvellous. I don’t always think that of course, but I think TEDEd does truly bring together some clever people to make education more fun, more effective and more available.

I am not sure that all the language in this video is consistent with how I understand the nervous system as it relates to pain, but I would welcome any and all comments on it. Specifically, should we, as pain clinicians and scientists, be embracing that which TEDEd embraces to more effectively reconceptualise pain? I suspect so.

So many exciting projects, so little time. Now that I am sleeping at night instead of listening to the National Anthems of USA, China and Great Britain (in that order), I might have some more night-time to think about how we can Explain Pain better. All serious suggestions and most silly ones welcome…..


  1. As a passionate exponent of trying to change the pain associated mental frameworks of the public, health professionals and pain sufferers, I would not recommend this clip for patients in its present form, yet I note all the yesses.
    There are important errors that other posters have picked up including the concept that a peripheral nerve sends qualitative messages such as pain, pleasure and touch. In the therapeutic neuroscience education world, changing this perception is perhaps the frontline of the pain war. Another error is the statement that nerves can’t fire backwards. They can of course and this story is essential if you are explaining neurogenic inflammation.
    It’s beautifully animated and produced but probably not with the pain sufferer in mind. The more beautifully produced, the more a person will believe content. And from an educational viewpoint it is a “knowledge display” at a reasonably high educational level which is highly unlikely to meet the patient at their story, something which is known to enhance conceptual change.
    The various forms of media have much to offer pain education. If the producers can get the story right and juice it up with information on how nerves work that is relevant to a patient (eg stimuli that sensitise), they obviously have the media skills to engender real change. I am looking forward to seeing more. Thanks for the putting it up and the discussion opportunity.

    David Butler

    Mary Reply:

    Perhaps you are already familiar with the animation in the film “What The Bleep Do We Know” U-tube has the –Addiction Clip on line. In the class that I teach (Physical Interventions in Pain Management) I give a presentation on pain neurophysiology (CEO). I acquired my knowledge from reading David’s and Lorimer’s work among others and attending NOI’s conference in Nottingham. So once I have established some foundation on pain over several sessions of the class, I use this clip (as nothing else seems to be available) to help explain the neurophysiology of pain. The concept of addiction to most people is equated with drugs and food. This opens the idea about “addiction” to emotions and then I take it to another thought and that is the perpetuation of pain in the brain: Neurons that fire together wire together and neuro-nets (tags). This film was not intended for the explanation of nociception but it is another tool to help demystify the workings of our nervous system. I hope that NOI and Body in Mind use their talent, incredible brains and humor to help produce a film for us to help Explain Pain.

  2. Big thanks from the TED-Ed team for posting this video. Of all this pieces we’ve created since BETA launch, this one was one of the more challenging, and more rewarding. It was our first foray into “3d” simulation and also one of the more verbose audios that our animators have attempted to vivify.

    @Eric, I really like your suggestion about creating another one on neural networks. We’re focusing on creating series of videos, and your idea is quite the natural extension of this introductory vid.

    We create TED-Ed lessons based on educator nominations that we receive on our website (linked to my avatar in the comment), so if you know a particularly qualified/eloquent someone (or if you are that someone) who could deliver a 3m audio on the matter, I would highly encourage you to nominate.

    Thanks again for sharing. I really like the layout of this site.

    Director, TED-Ed

    soula Reply:

    congrats and THANK YOU Logan. i’ll be sharing this to my website too.

    Heidi Reply:

    Thank You for taking the time and effort to make the video Logan. Clearly it’s hit the mark!

  3. that made total sense for me. LOVED IT.
    after falling to my tail, i’ve always thought in my 5.5 years of pain that there had to be an ‘explanation’. i kept hearing CRPS and the brain was in a pain loop. i read everything i could get my hands on and completely and totally based on my experience, now come to this conclusion:
    i believe my injury (specific to the pudendal nerve) had gone untreated from the beginning (i got to the point of not being able to lift a glass of water many days). since its address one year ago the heat, pain, sensory nightmare has calmed, to almost normal. i’m not so sure my ‘messages are fixed’ but rather think the nerve’s problem was treated with pressure point technique, nerve blocks, low dose meds.
    i guess it doesnt matter how this happened either way for me… life is worth living again. for anyone helping people with pelvic chronic pain, please read my story. too many people are being told to go home and get comfy because nothing can be done. pudendal neuralgia can be treated and i’m proof. me who was ‘the worst case’ practitioners seen.
    this TED video makes sense in my brain… its like nerve closure! blissful.

    Jon Sullivan Reply:

    i’d like to know more about your story, do you have a link?
    a massage therapist who treats with myofascial release techniques in Austin, TX,
    Jon Sullivan

    soula Reply:

    just hit my name jon. the site is
    email me if you need more info.

  4. Adam Bjerre says:

    I think Diane Jacobs has made a brilliant attempt with her “New Treatment Encounter”-series here:

  5. Eric Kruger says:

    Generally, a good deal of overview. A little to complex for most people if they do not have a basic understanding of electronics i.e. works like transistors etc. From a pain education stand point the author conflates thermal and low threshold receptor signals from the peripherial nerves with pain and pleasure experiences created by higher centers. This is unfortunate because it largely ignores and miscomunicates the difference between what is sensed and what is experienced. Maybe they should make another video for how nerves are organized i.e. neural networks.

  6. Doménique says:

    I am very interested in learning what happens when a nerve gets damaged. For example during an operation, or by a inflammation. What happens to the nerve? Why do you feel pain in an other spot than where the damage is? If a nerve cannot detect any light feeling, can it restore? how does the healing process work? And does the book ‘Explain Pain’ also apply to pain caused by Nerve Damage? I would very much learn more about this subject.

    David Butler Reply:

    Hi Doménique,
    I am glad you raised this topic. These days scientists are at both ends of the nervous system – the brain or the tissue and what is in between, such as the glorious peripheral nerves, gets forgotten!
    Here are 6 juicy facts about nerves.
    1. They are incredibly tough – you can jump on the nerves on someone’s foot and they’ll be OK. Around half a nerve is ligament – they are very mobile too and as we move so do our nerves – some in the arm will move 2 centimetres in relation to the tissues around.
    2. They can get damaged in a number of ways – inflamed, compressed , cut for example, but they never hurt – only the brain makes “hurts”. By the way, “damaged” is not a good word for nerves because they adapt very quickly and if you were to closely check everyone’s nerves, they aren’t that pretty – especially where they rub on ligaments, bones or go around corners as in the elbow. Even though they might be a bit like a frayed rope, they don’t have to be reactive. Nerves adapt brilliantly. Sort of how you can have changes in your joints on Xray but no pain.
    3. However “damaged” nerves sometimes send impulses to the brain and the brain will make pain which will features of the nerve (could be zings and zaps for example, symptoms in the zone of the nerve) .
    4. When they do contribute to pain states, the damaged area is likely to have more sensors (Check Explain Pain, Chapter 2). Some of these sensors react to lack of blood and an acidic environment , others to being pulled around and yet others to stress chemicals such as adrenaline and products of the immune system. The nerve root can be quite nasty.
    5. “Other spot” pain, as you note, is common with nerve injury. Because it’s all continuous, a problem is one area can make more sensors elsewhere. Spread of pain could also be due to neurones in the brain becoming more sensitive, but that’s another story. But its good to know that is not spread of damage, its spread of sensitivity
    6. If there is numbness or an inability to detect light feeling (they could be different), whether it returns depends on many things – kind of damage, which nerve, how long its been going on for, general health. But the bits and pieces of numbness that occur after surgery usually get better.

    There are a few pages on nerves in Explain Pain”.
    One day researchers will come back to the peripheral nerve. One of life’s great journeys is the movement of waves of chemicals and impulses up and down nerves which could be a metre long as in nerves in the leg. It’s all one cell with about a million sensors along it and if you made the nucleus (up in the back) as big as your fist the axon going to the foot could be 10 kilometres long.

    David Butler

  7. I think having a visual, animated explanation is easier to follow for people. However, I’ve found that people who suffer from pain, high stress levels, depression are unable to deal with a lot of information coming in at once so information which is animated, visual and auditory would need to be designed so there isn’t too much going on in each frame and perhaps broken down into bite sized sections. Or perhaps graded videos are needed with levels for those who are only able to process a small amount of extra stimulation through to a stage where that person is managing their pain and able to take in 3D, animated, coloured, moving information with a detailed auditory commentary.

    I’m sure you’ve picked this one up but this video says nerves carry pain, warning and pleasure!