Interesting read from npr.org last week
“When you whack yourself with a hammer, it feels like the pain is in your thumb. But really it’s in your brain.
That’s because our perception of pain is shaped by brain circuits that are constantly filtering the information coming from our sensory nerves, says David Linden, a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University and author of the new book Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind.
“The brain can say, ‘Hey that’s interesting. Turn up the volume on this pain information that’s coming in,’ ” Linden says. “Or it can say, ‘Oh no — let’s turn down the volume on that and pay less attention to it.’ “
The brain also determines the emotion we attach to each painful experience, Linden says. That’s possible, he explains, because the brain uses two different systems to process pain information coming from our nerve endings.
One system determines the pain’s location, intensity and characteristics: stabbing, aching, burning, etc.
“And then,” Linden says, “there is a completely separate system for the emotional aspect of pain — the part that makes us go, ‘Ow! This is terrible.’ “
Linden says positive emotions — like feeling calm and safe and connected to others — can minimize pain. But negative emotions tend to have the opposite effect.”
The article read a bit haphazardly perhaps, and there are a couple of Lost in Translation clangers – particularly “pain information coming from our nerve endings”, but the notion of the ‘separate aspects of pain’ seems to be worth some consideration.
Can the location, intensity and characteristics of the subjective experience of pain be neatly separated from a nominal “emotional” aspect as the author suggests? What makes the painfulness of pain – that quality of the pain experience “that makes us go, ‘Ow! This is terrible'” necessarily emotional? Are the powerful metaphors used as examples of the non-emotional characteristics of a pain experience – stabbing, burning, aching not already tapping into emotions? Is it all just pointless semantics?
Interested in thoughts and comments
– Tim Cocks