What the face reveals: the experience of pain

Abstract submitted to Workshop 3, De/Constructing the Body: Ancient and Modern Dynamics

Pain is not an action; yet it reveals itself in those gestures which cannot fail to disclose and to compromise the person with pain. 

During pain, body-parts are subject to massive involuntary transformations. But the involuntary transformations revealed in the face are more meaningful than in other body-parts. This is because body-parts do not have the individuating meaning of the face: the meaning of revealing meherenow. When I observe another’s pain facial expression, I am not perceiving a physical part of him, as I am when I notice his injured arm or leg. I am meeting him, a real person, who reveals himself in the face. A person may be perceived by his arm, but not in his arm. The most meaningful features in displays of pain are the eyes, followed by brows, eyelids, mouth, head, forehead, and then other body-parts. Intentional control of pain through facial movements is normally judged by observers to be an insincere expression of pain, and open to doubt. Thus, involuntary facial changes show the person with pain “as he really is” because he does not fully control them, and observers are more obliged to offer help when movements are most involuntary. 

Collage by Alexey Kondakov

The loss of voluntary control over my body during pain, and its dominion over me, create the compelling sense, for me and for others, of an “incarnate” person. Pain imposes a significant vulnerability on persons: the vulnerability of a free person who is overwhelmed in his or her body by the presence of pain. This can make the person with pain feel answerable for what he or she experiences. The expression on a face is an offering in the world of mutual responsibilities: it projects into our inter-personal relations a particular person’s “being there”. As soon as I notice pain in another person’s face, my responsibilities are engaged. Facial expressions of pain call on you to respond to me. The face has this meaning for us because it is the boundary at which the other appears, offering “this person” as one in need of help. This feature is perhaps at the heart of what it means to treat and monitor pain.

Keywords: face; facial expression; pain; meaning; body; involuntary.

2 thoughts on “What the face reveals: the experience of pain

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