The Mystery of Pain

What really is physical pain? How is it created and what is its function? Stating it consists of electrical and chemical signals may be true but will not help us much. With damage to the body pain appears alongside it like a ghostly but 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. Pain has a function as information to guide us, the lighthouse on the rocks that warns us. 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 is the ultimate receiver of pain signals we search in recursive loops but in the end find nothing, no wiser than the simplistic notion 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 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 doesn’t exist. This imperative is what distinguishes it from just information. Information alone is apparently not enough to affect behavior. Pain concentrates the mind like nothing else.  

In making a humanoid robot how would you create pain? Pain is unpleasant and unpleasantness is…pain? What does unpleasantness or pain even mean? Is it alarm, that is a hijacking of the brain? Pain neutralizes the brain, creates a lack of function 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 that repels just as pleasure is one that attracts and note the brain patterns of these two are similar and can even switch from one to the other. Pain and pleasure like consciousness itself are emergent properties of the brain, that is a cumulative effect of simple steps that can only be truly seen at the larger scale.

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 an objective process but there is a large subjective component and at least in the case of chronic pain with no tissue damage may even be fully so. We might even 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. 

Mild pain or at least discomfort as long as it does no harm to the body 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. 

Since reports of damage from sensory nerves are associated with bad outcomes for the organism – a quite valid association of course – the brain has evolved to avoid them at all costs and created a process – a storm – that hijacks the brain in a mysterious way. It may be just a cognitive effect but it’s a very effective one.  

But to describe the mechanism of pain from the outside 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 fully motivate us – an imperative beyond information – and magically this mechanism has appeared. But would a fully rational and conscious machine need pain? Pain may ironically be both a sign of the brain’s ingeniousness and its shortcomings. 

Understanding as art and science