The Mystery of Pain

What really is physical pain? How and why is it created? It becomes more mysterious the more it’s examined. Stating it consists of electrical and chemical signals may be true but will not help us much. A self-referential dictionary type definition will also not take us very far: pain is unpleasant and unpleasantness is…pain? What does unpleasantness or pain even mean?

With damage to the body pain appears alongside it like a ghostly but quite insistent companion. If the damage doesn’t motivate us its companion certainly will and no doubt this is how it evolved as a survival aid. In fact a few people are born every year without the ability for pain and they usually die prematurely in accidents. Pain has a function as information to guide us, the light blinking on the body’s instrument panel. But what about when pain has no seeming purpose, an alarm bell loudly ringing when the building has long ago been emptied? 

In considering what part of the brain is the ultimate receiver of pain signals we search in recursive loops but in the end find nothing, no wiser than the medieval – or modern sci-fi comedy – idea of a little man inside our heads – complete of course with his own brain and contained little man. There is apparently no part of the brain that collates and makes sense of all its signals but even if there were – the brain’s brain  – the problem would just be put off. Pain and pleasure just as consciousness itself are emergent properties of the brain, that is a cumulative effect of simple steps that can only be truly seen at a larger scale.

Pain is a cognitive construct that seizes the brain, a reflexive, automatic process that has evolved to protect the body. Pain is an imperative; without this imperative pain would not exist, would have no function. This imperative is what distinguishes it from just information. Information alone is apparently not enough to affect behavior of even the more sophisticated animals. Pain concentrates the mind like nothing else. Like fear, pain demands a change in the present situation, we are motivated to get away by an acute and unpleasant sensation.  

How would you create pain in making say, a humanoid robot, not just the information but the sensation itself? Pain neutralizes the brain, freezes its functioning with the degree of pain the degree of dysfunction. We say “I can’t concentrate or enjoy anything because of the pain.” Pain is a brain state of wanting to escape the situation just as pleasure is of wanting to stay in it yet note the brain patterns of these two are similar and can even switch from one to the other. 

If pain is simply biochemical in nature as it appears to be, why are only some of these signals “painful” and some not? What accounts for the degree of alarm or pain and can this degree be modulated by fuller consciousness? Mindfulness by its very nature reduces alarm in general and so perhaps pain in particular. Pain’s value as a signal will remain but the trauma will be removed. 

Many are skeptical that pain can be eased by merely becoming more fully aware of it and insist that pain is entirely objective but there is a large subjective component and at least in the case of chronic pain with no tissue damage it may even be fully so. We say “Oh that doesn’t hurt!” as if we could know how it feels for someone else. Perhaps mindfulness calms the storm of pain or at least reduces the associated mental distress. At its most extreme we think of the disturbing newsreel clips of the Vietnamese monks that burned themselves to death without once flinching. 

As long as it does no harm to the body mild pain or discomfort can be practiced every day as a skill; perhaps slight hunger or a cold bath, strenuous exercise or even just to sit still and alert for a few minutes. The urge to escape is felt but not acted upon.

As an aside this applies just as much to the purely psychological. A slight irritation, a flare of annoyance, an impatience can be held steady in the mind and observed like any other object. It will seem quite flimsy and ridiculous. Embarrassment, even humiliation can be played with in this way. It evaporates as the light shines on it. Just ask yourself: what is the entity that is hurt, that suffers? 

Since reports from sensory nerves of bodily damage are associated with bad outcomes for the organism, the brain has evolved to avoid them at all costs and created a process – a neural storm – that hijacks the brain, an imperative of escape at all costs. It may be just a cognitive effect but it’s a very effective one. Not a single one of us – at the end of a chain of beings that stretch to the beginning of life on earth – would be here without it.  

But to fully describe the mechanism of pain may be always beyond us. Perhaps all we can say is that something like pain that goes beyond sensory signals would have to be invented to motivate us fully into the body – an imperative beyond information – and magically this mechanism has appeared. But would a fully rational and conscious machine need pain at all? Pain may ironically be both a sign of the brain’s ingeniousness and its limits. 

Understanding as art and science