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Parts of pain

By Timothy Cocks Science and the world 24 Feb 2015

Interesting read from last week

Pain Really Is All In Your Head And Emotion Controls Intensity

“When you whack yourself with a hammer, it feels like the pain is in your thumb. But really it’s in your brain.

That’s because our perception of pain is shaped by brain circuits that are constantly filtering the information coming from our sensory nerves, says David Linden, a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University and author of the new book Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind.

“The brain can say, ‘Hey that’s interesting. Turn up the volume on this pain information that’s coming in,’ ” Linden says. “Or it can say, ‘Oh no — let’s turn down the volume on that and pay less attention to it.’ “

The brain also determines the emotion we attach to each painful experience, Linden says. That’s possible, he explains, because the brain uses two different systems to process pain information coming from our nerve endings.

One system determines the pain’s location, intensity and characteristics: stabbing, aching, burning, etc.

“And then,” Linden says, “there is a completely separate system for the emotional aspect of pain — the part that makes us go, ‘Ow! This is terrible.’ “

Linden says positive emotions — like feeling calm and safe and connected to others — can minimize pain. But negative emotions tend to have the opposite effect.”

The article read a bit haphazardly perhaps, and there are a couple of Lost in Translation clangers – particularly “pain information coming from our nerve endings”, but the notion of the ‘separate aspects of pain’ seems to be worth some consideration.

Can the location, intensity and characteristics of the subjective experience of pain be neatly separated from a nominal “emotional” aspect as the author suggests? What makes the painfulness of pain – that quality of the pain experience “that makes us go, ‘Ow! This is terrible'” necessarily emotional? Are the powerful metaphors used as examples of the non-emotional characteristics of a pain experience – stabbing, burning, aching not already tapping into emotions? Is it all just pointless semantics?

Interested in thoughts and comments

– Tim Cocks



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  1. Hi Tim,

    — “Can the location, intensity and characteristics of the subjective experience of pain be neatly separated from a nominal “emotional” aspect as the author suggests?”

    Yes, disociatives and other hallucinogens will parse out the two components of pain, nociception and suffering. Suffering is subdued or eliminated temporarily.

    — “What makes the painfulness of pain – that quality of the pain experience “that makes us go, ‘Ow! This is terrible’” necessarily emotional?”

    What makes it emotional is only the sense of ownership of the body, ie. the ego. If certain aspects of the brain are shut down with LSD or meditation, the sense of ownership vanishes and all suffering stops at that point. Consciousness continues and nociception will continue to occur (or not) depending upon tissue damage or threat, but if there’s no owner, then there’s no one to care if it hurts.

    The only people who have ever claimed to end personal suffering permanently are those who have used extensive meditation and a heavy reliance on neuroplasticity to shut down the neural correlates of selfhood. How long before we can use the ‘E’ word in polite company? Another 50 years?

    The most advanced stuff I’ve ever read on pain has come from philosophers. This is Nisagardatta speaking from personal experience:

    “Beyond the mind* there is no suffering. Pain is essential for the survival of the body, but none compels you to suffer. Suffering is due entirely to clinging or resisting; it is a sign of our unwillingness to move on, to flow with life…..Why shouldn’t pain be acceptable? Did you ever try? Do try and you will find in pain a joy which pleasure cannot yield, for the simple reason that acceptance of pain takes you much deeper than pleasure does. The more we are conscious, the deeper the joy. Acceptance of pain, non-resistance, courage and endurance – these open deep and perennial sources of real happiness, true bliss”.

    Opiates are obviously an easier option than 5 years of meditation, but he and many others (living and dead) have achieved this state. And I find that totally amazing.

    For the scientists, something a bit more watered down on the same topic….

    Regards, EG

    *here, he is referring to the ego-mind.

  2. PS. I’m not equating dissociation with selflessness, but there are some parallels. This is an important point. I’d like to define them this way:

    “Selflessness” is a letting go of constant self-referencing. One does not distance or detach oneself from pain; one lets go of the one who is doing the experiencing of pain. [The fact that it is possible to let go of the self means that the self consists of nothing more than electrical impulses in the brain. Individuality or selfhood has no more reality to it than that, persistent as it is].

    “Dissociation” is about distancing and detaching oneself from the painful reality of the present moment. Selfhood remains intact. This is a coping mechanism like denial – it protects the ego from being perceived as ‘bad’ or ‘faulty’.


    1. Hey EG
      Really great thoughts to open a discussion – thank you.
      Will be back when i get a bit more time to pick up on some really interesting points.

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