The components of pain

In the past, I’ve mentioned my idea — drawn from various texts — that you can break the experience of pain into multiple components. I define these components as 1) the actual feeling of the pain, the firing of nerve endings etc. 2) your attention to the pain (in the same sense that you can be looking at someone and not be consciously aware of the color of their eyes, I believe you can feel pain but not attend to it*) and 3) your emotional response to the pain (“Oh shit — this really hurts! Is this going to destroy my life? I’m fucked.”)

* I’m not saying this is easy.

As I’m reading through Antonio Damasio’s “Looking for Spinoza” I stumble across the description of a scientific study that gets into this very concept. In the study, a group of people were “subjected to hand pain (their hands were immersed in ice cold water.)” Another group was exposed to a vibratory stimulus on their hand (the book doesn’t say, but I’m guessing it’s a French tickler.) While this was going on, the subjects’ brains were being scanned. Now, our brain has several regions that activate when we experience the sense of touch. For the people exposed to pain (the cold water) to regions — the insula and was called the SII — lit up. Both those areas are known to be related to the processing of emotion. In the case of the people holding vibrators, another area, called SI, activated.

Then the experiment was repeated but in this case, the subjects were given painkillers. The people whose hands were being doused in water reported less pain, and there was less activity observed in their insula and SII. For the people with vibrators, there was no change.

This seems to make a couple points. One, pain can be broken down into different components. And we can directly correlate this emotional component of pain — the “agony” of pain — to the insula and SII. I’d be curious as to whether those mystics who walk on hot coals or sleep on a bed of nails have figured out some way to quiet these particular parts of the brain.

4 Responses to “The components of pain”

  1. John Saleeby

    I’d comment but you’ll just ignore it or call me a homo and life is too short for that jazz, man.

  2. Wil

    Life is never too short for jazz. Pull out some classic Count Basie… some screaming John Coltrane…! Just dig it, man, DIG IT!!!!

  3. John Saleeby

    Don’t flip your wig, Daddy O!!!

  4. Larwence