Glasgow Science Festival: Is Pain Bad?


During my further attendance of the Glasgow Science Festival, I came across what seemed impossible: Dr David Bain’s conviction that some pains are not unpleasant. After starting his talk by naming the statement “All pains hurt” – the bloody obvious truth – he attempted to show that in unique cases, pain doesn’t hurt.

One could think that in the case of congenital pain insensitivity, pain doesn’t hurt. But pain just isn’t there, Dr Bain argues. In the same way, soldiers who said nothing hurt as they lost their limbs in the heat of battle just didn’t feel the pain; their brains seemed to have closed a pain “gate” to attend to the more pressing matter of survival. Another case would be lobotomised patients, who insist they feel pain, but it no longer bothers them. Again, Dr Bain argues that the pain still hurts, but lobotomy has eliminated the worry and emotional suffering resulting from pain. And what about masochism? Surely pain doesn’t hurt in that case. On the contrary: the unpleasantness of pain is sought after as a means to attain another goal.

No, it seems that the bloody obvious truth can only be challenged by pain asymbolia, a condition following certain types of brain damage, in which patients feel what they recognise as pain, but without its unpleasantness. But it goes further: they have become completely indifferent to threats made to their bodies. If a knife was thrown at them, they wouldn’t move out of the way.

For Dr Colin Klein, this threat indifference results from the brain damage having destroyed the patients’ primitive care reflex to preserve their bodies. In his opinion, their pain is unpleasant, but they have merely become incapable of caring. Dr Bain held a different view. For him, pain is information; it both tells you that you are damaged, and that it is bad for you. Something is bad for you only if you care about it. It follows that pain would be experienced as bad only if you care for your body. This could explain that asymbolics would experience the damage, without the fact that it’s bad for them, hence no unpleasantness.

Crazy. But it was a great feeling to have one of my firmest beliefs shattered in one hour.

[Isabelle Ribe]

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