Pain = rage? Are emotions merely sensations?

Lately, I’ve been reading some material by John Sarno, a doctor who argues that most recurring types of pain — like the repetitive strain in my forearms, or recurring migraines experienced by many people — have entirely emotional causes. His thesis, built off a lot of Freudian concepts, is that pain is the brain attempting to distract the conscious mind from rage in the unconscious mind.

I’m not entirely convinced, but his writing does jibe with a lot of other interesting ideas I’ve been reading and thinking about in relation to pain, sensation and emotions.

I’ve mentioned the idea — first proposed by William James (Henry’s brother) — that emotions are nothing more than physical sensations. You say you feel “unhappy,” but what you are really feeling is mild stomach discomfort, a certain tiredness, perhaps some subtle aches throughout your body. James’s argument is that there is nothing more to emotions other than sensations.

Now, the book on fear I recently read added an interesting layer. That author proposed that many “happy” feelings are really just the absence of any physical sensation. You’re not feeling much of anything. (Obviously, this isn’t true for every “happy” emotion. I find I often have a pleasant tingling in the back of my neck, or near the temples when experiencing certain kinds of happiness, particularly happiness due to laughing.) The author stated something to the effect that mild pain and fear (with their corollary physical sensations) is the standard body state, and happiness (with its lack of sensation) is the exception.

We ought to be able to run a simple test to verify some of this. After all, there are people who — due to some kind of biological defect — feel nothing. If negative emotions are merely unpleasant physical sensations, and happiness tends to be a lack of sensation, these people should be pretty happy. And, the fear book notes that they do tend to be unusually joyful people, despite the fact that they’re constantly burning themselves on stoves or breaking their own fingers because they can’t feel pain.

The idea here is that the brain is constantly analyzing the world for threats to the well-being of the individual. It “punishes” what it construes to be behaviors that work against the well-being by allowing the conscious mind to experience unpleasant sensations. We contextualize these sensations as emotions. For example, let’s say I sleep with my neighbor’s wife. I find myself feeling slightly ill. I contextualize the sensation as “guilt.” My brain has determined that my behavior is working against my well-being (a correct determination if my neighbor ever finds out about the affair.)

Of course, the brain also rewards behavior which it thinks will reinforce the well-being of the individual. I might feel good doing something nice for someone, because the brain suspects the favor will be returned. (I’m essentially building up “good karma.”) A woman puts on makeup and makes herself attractive and feels good about herself, because she’s strengthening the odds that she will carry out the desires of her genes to pass themselves onto a new generation.

Certainly something to think about.

7 Responses to “Pain = rage? Are emotions merely sensations?”


  1. John Saleeby

    That makes some sense. While I was getting over Depression I had weird aches in my back and legs which eventually went away without my even noticing. I guess once my mind started feeling better my body had to get into bumming me out just to show Who’s The Boss. But I overcame it all and became the Nietzchien Superman that I am today. I just won’t mention that my dick fell off.

    Ha ha! Atsa some joke, eh, Boss?

  2. Wil

    Right, and you might consider that that depression was aches and pains, combined with the thinking of negative thoughts.

    Recently I had an interesting insight into the presence of negative thoughts. I find my mood is very susceptible to weather, particularly whether there’s sunlight. Just recently there was a bout of cloudy days, and I found myself getting depressed and moping over my horrible life. Then the sun came out, and I experienced a definite mood elation. I was still thinking thoughts about my horrible life, but they had no impact on my mood. Which makes me think it’s not the thoughts themselves, but the accompanying “depressing” sensations, which for me tend to be a very mild achiness, and barely noticeable stomach discomfort.

    I’m sure I’m simplifying all these processes, but the crux is there.

  3. John Saleeby

    That’s the effect of sunlight, which is very important to mental health. On cloudy days you are aware of the lack of direct sunlight which is Embuggening* to the mind.

    *Big Time Psychiatric talk, when you have been “Embuggened” you feel “Bugged” ie “This is bugging me!”

  4. Wil

    I believe that in extreme forms being embugged leads to sensations of “I can feel bugs crawling around in my brain!”

  5. John Saleeby

    That happened to the guy who built the Atomic Bomb. He became very depressed and his little girl told a reporter that “Daddy has black bugs living in his brain”.

    Have you heard about the Time Traveling Woman they found talking on a Cel Phone in the background of some Silent Movie footage from the Twenties? People are really fucking stupid, aren’t they?

  6. Wil

    I did see some mention of that. I’ve been enjoying the video of this lion hugging the woman who saved him.

  7. John Saleeby

    Lions are very emotional. No one ever made an animated Musical about a squid.