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The Explain Pain Assessment Visualised – Question 4.

By Noigroup HQ Uncategorized 11 May 2018

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Knowledge Driving Health


  1. Ralph Samwell

    QUESTION: It is the far-distant future. Knowledge of the brain has progressed to the point where our brains can be removed from our bodies and stored safely in a room while communicating wirelessly with our bodies; such disembodied brains can control our movements as they do now in situ. American football teams use this brain-separation technique to protect themselves from concussions. Yet there are still broken arms and legs, and players writhing on the ground. Where is the pain?
    ANSWER: The pain is in the players’ behaviour. The brains in the locker room contain the pain mechanisms, but pain itself is not an internal mechanism; it is an interaction over time between a person’s overt behaviour and the environment. It is the player writhing on the field, not his or her brain, that needs assistance; pain can function as a signal for that. For the hurt football player, as for us all, the pain of the moment exists in the context of a wider relationship over time between harmful stimuli (such as a hot stove) and overt and generally functional behaviour (such as pulling your hand away).
    Howard Rachlin
    is Emeritus Research Professor of Psychology at the State University of New York

    1. Hi
      I think the premise of the question is flawed – one has to believe that brains can exist in vats and continue to function and there is good reason to be sceptical about this. While thought experiments often do require some, or even liberal, licence in order to focus on the key idea of the experiment, the brain in a vat thought experiment just is about the possibility of continued functioning of a disembodied brain – this demands at least some thought around how this may work. One of the problems I see here is the notion of ‘communication’ – in order for the brain to send a message (wirelessly or not) there needs to be a sender (brain?), message (let’s ignore this for now) and receiver. The receiver is a problematic bit – what in the de-brained body receives the message? Is every cell endowed with a receiver? How do these trillions (more??) of receivers coordinate with each other in-situ – surely there must be some connection. And then how does the body process the message and send feedback in order for the brain to further respond to a changing environment… It would seem that this thought experiment sneaks something very much like a brain back into the body.

      I find the answer quite odd, with echoes of old behaviourism and no sense of the phenomenology of pain. Is the experience of pain not in the person – the human? No doubt that this person has a brain, and is embedded in a environment, including culture, but to reduce pain to a behaviour seems to take away the very subjective experience that pain is.

      I still can’t connect this comment to the question of whether a person has access to digital media, but i have enjoyed the philosophical discussion no less.

      My best

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