25 April 2019

Durability of pain

Durability of pain

I think we all agree that our subject, durability of pain, is not a straight forward topic. It certainly needs to be clarified, but first the origin of this topic was “the durability of pleasure and pain” but as we know with two completely different topics in the title, one of them will end up being the runt subject. Hence, why we only have pain in the title.

The pain in our topic is not the standard pain we feel during a toothache or a broken leg. That kind of pain can be subdued by pain killers (maybe) but certainly we do not say when everything is fixed and remember the episode as “we can feel the pain" as we describe our toothache. However, there are types of personal events and experiences that make it legitimate to say for example, “it pains me when I remember what he did to me” or “I can still feel the pain of having to leave my friends when I left the city.” This is a kind of pain that is different from a toothache type of pain.

Emotional pain is real and a very distressing type of pain, but a) is it a “toothache” type of pain for use of better terminology (maybe physical pain or raw physical pain might do?), and b) do we really feel the pain when we remember bad experiences? Or is it the case that when we recall past experiences we activate emotional type feelings that can in turn cause us to feel emotional type of pain? A normal person (the person on the Clapham omnibus) would not feel the actual pain when recalling the experience of a toothache. We might recall the experience which in turn we start feeling so bad that we end up with emotional distress and maybe even physical pain, but not the toothache or raw pain itself.

Emotional pain is not raw type of pain by virtue for example, that no physical nerves have been injured. At this point we might even question whether there is pain involved at all when we are rejected or experience a loss. Maybe it is not the event itself that causes us to feel pain but the physical stress we find ourselves in that manifests itself into some form of pain. After all, a function of pain to alert us that something is wrong with the system and therefore must attend to it immediately.

If we accept this “alarm function” of pain, then pain is not a characteristic of the event we experience but of our physical body. In other words, it is not that a rejection causes pain, but rather a rejection causes mental/brain states that can activate certain physiological reactions that might trip the pain alarm system. So, in a way pain is not an element of what constitutes a bad experience but sometimes associated with bad experience.

Before the nanny state and busy bodies took over the lives of children we, when young teenagers, used to play a game to see who could stick a needle in our hands the furthest and the longest. Some were quite tolerant and very good at the game. In retrospect, we must have had long breaks at school, but also people felt pain differently. I do not mean some people tolerate pain from others, but rather they claimed that they had no pain feelings. It was a matter for them on how to stick the needle.

Two necessary conditions of raw pain are that we are conscious and the second is that we actually feel the pain. But for our topic, durability of pain (i.e. emotional pain) we need a third condition: we need to remember the pain and the experience of what caused our experience of pain.

In a way it does not matter whether the pain we experience during an event is a characteristic of the event or our body. Surely the pain we feel when rejected is a different type of pain when, say we move to another country. In other words, Event-B causes pain-B whilst Event-C causes pain-C and, thus when I remember event-B I remember or even feel pain-B: there seems to be no question that I mix up pains when remembering an emotional event. This seems to be true even when we recall a specific event in our dreams we do not mix up the associated pain.

This is all very nice and I am sure five minutes searching for pain will list numerous references from science and beyond. But our objective is not to analyse physical pain, even if we accept that all pain is physical, but why do we remember emotional pain events over long periods. It cannot be that we remember emotional pain for long periods for survival purposes. If we want to remember and learn from a rejection event we are better off analysing our rational process when choosing people in our life. Remembering that Person X caused us emotional pain-x won’t help us much next time we have to make a choice of people to associate with. So what is the point of remembering pain for a long time?

Last week we spent a lot of time discussing revenge: we know that negative emotional events may cause pain to some people so we might be tempted to challenge the emotions of people by using some hurtful words. Insults are common examples in our life. Such language manipulation or language games, which are only understood by the two actors (or number of actors) involved, is an ideal weapon or strategy for revenge. This strategy also has the benefit of repeating the pain every time the victim of the strategy remembers the episode. As a strategy this is very cheap, its effects are very long lasting and might even save us a stint in the local jail since we don’t have to use physical force. Indeed, this methodology is so powerful that presumably  was first invented by creatures such as P. vivax and P. ovale* who: “Malaria Relapses: ......In P. vivax and P. ovale infections, patients having recovered from the first episode of illness may suffer several additional attacks (“relapses”) after months or even years without symptoms.”

But a human function of feeling the pain of negative experiences over periods of time does seem to have a more legitimate and positive effect on us. A powerful set of negative experiences are mistakes: we associate emotional pain with mistakes. We are not only stressed for getting  3 points for our essay, but maybe also for making the mistake of choosing person X who later rejected us: especially when we had a choice between X and Y.

The positive function of long term emotional pain is that we learn from our mistakes; and maybe the pain does not go away because we have not yet learnt our lesson or worse we did not have the opportunity to learn from past mistakes.

Maybe, at the end, our basic function of pain as an alarm system is rather too limited. Maybe pain not only comes in levels and intensities but also function. Maybe pain, and especially what I have been calling emotional pain, is more important for us a teacher than just an alarm system. The issue is why in some cases it takes us some time to learn from our negative experiences?

*Section on Malaria
U.S. Department of Health & Human Services

Best Lawrence

Durability of pain

In the meantime, you can find the new guided tours of the British
Cemetery for May-June here:
Visitas guiadas, Cementerio Británico.

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