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Can you imagine the damage

By Timothy Cocks Philosophy of pain 10 May 2017

An interesting piece from Canadian philosopher Adam Morton. It is sensitively written and thought provoking. Like much philosophy it is not focussed on what to do or how to do it, but rather why do it – in this case; why approach human interactions with compassion and care:

Damage and Imagination

Our ability to treat one another well, or even decently, depends on our capacities to imagine, simulate, sympathize, empathize, and intuit other people. These are a wide array of different, similar, and overlapping, capacities, essential to human social life. I shall lump them all together as imagining (but see). We imagine what it is like for one another, and we act accordingly.

[But] There are important things about other people that we are not good at imagining. The kinds of damage I have been mentioning are examples, and the ways that human cultures have misunderstood them is testimony to our blindness on these topics. But there are many others: depression, phobias, anxiety, neurological damage.

…damage is hard to imagine. For much damage does not consist in pain and is not reflected in a person’s conscious life or the social sense of their acquaintances. If this is right there is a very important project of understanding and dealing with these things better than we do. It requires the combined attention of philosophers — both philosophers of mind and moral philosophers — psychologists — both developmental and clinical psychologists — and social thinkers. It also requires an openness to tinkering with deeply ingrained ideas that regulate our treatment of one another. That is quite demanding; but the stakes are high.

-Tim Cocks


  1. jqu33431quintner

    Tim, here is a relevant extract (i.e. suggesting what to do & how to do it) taken from our book chapter in “Meanings of Pain (2016).”

    [Quintner JL, Cohen ML. The challenge of validating the experience of chronic pain: the importance of intersubjectivity and reframing. In: van Rysewyk S (ed) Meanings of Pain. Springer, 2016.]


    One of the tenets of empathy is the ability to put oneself in the position of the other because of shared human biology and humanity. Crisp and colleagues (Crisp and Turner, 2012; Miles and Crisp, 2014; Crisp, 2015) have developed this theme as social prospection, defined as “the capacity to mentally project oneself into the past or the future to consider alternative perspectives based on our past experiences.”

    In his important “contact hypothesis,” Allport (1954) suggested that bringing together members of different groups under appropriate conditions could lead to more positive inter-group relations. Crisp and Turner (2012) expanded Allport’s hypothesis to encompass “the planning, rehearsal, and enacting interactions with others—the ability to mentally time-travel that is necessary to transcend peoples’ tendencies to see out-groups as ‘them’, and to see a possible future in which they are also ‘us’.” In support of this proposal they have assembled evidence that by simply imagining contact with a member of an “out” group a person is engaging in conscious processes that parallel those involved in actual contact.

    The potential benefits of a person imagining a positive interaction with an outgroup member include positive changes in attitudes and behaviour towards the member, as well as less overall anxiety for the person involved. In addition, they draw on research from other areas of behavioural science that shows that social prospection can enhance self-efficacy.

    Evidence assembled by Miles and Crisp (2014) also supports the proposition that imagined contact is potentially a key component of educational strategies aiming to promote positive social change. Although this proposition has not been tested in relation to clinicians and their patients in pain, it has been shown on the one hand that only providing information does not change intergroup attitudes, while on the other hand that imagined contact could help to challenge existing attitudes and to “reduce anxiety and negative expectations about contact, while generating positive emotions like empathy” (Crisp and Turner, 2012).

    Social prospection may be a novel template for reframing the clinical encounter in pain medicine.

    References available on request.

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