“Pain and perception” – some questions and answers

Argument:

Imagine I see a white rose. The rose is white, not my seeing of it. Right? To think my seeing of the rose is white is to confuse what is perceived, with my perceiving of it. It’s a category mistake.

Now, compare: ‘I feel a burning pain’. To think my feeling of the pain is what burns is, again, to confuse what is perceived, with my perceiving of it.

The pain is what burns, not the feeling of it. Therefore, pain is not a perception.


Question: Whether the pain ‘burns’ or not is down to the perception of the person feeling the pain. It could just as easily be perceived as a ‘stinging’ sensation, a ‘grazing’ sensation, or any other way they wish to describe it. Just because something feels like a burn, doesn’t mean it is, and doesn’t mean it should be treated as such.

Reply: Let me try a different tack: how do you know that you have a pain? Suppose you say, ‘I know I have a pain because I feel (perceive) it’. Makes sense. But ‘I feel it’ means the same as ‘I have it’. Feeling a pain is having a pain. Therefore, ‘I know I am in pain because I feel it’ says no more than ‘I know I have a pain because I have a pain’, which doesn’t explain how you know that you have a pain.

I am arguing that knowledge of pain is not a form of perceptual knowledge (unlike perceiving a white rose). Again: When I feel a pain, there are not two things involved: the pain, and my feeling the pain. There is just the pain. Therefore, pain is not a perception.


Question: Your pain is the perception of it. That is how it works. If you don’t perceive it, it isn’t there. Our reality is constructed from our perceptions and doesn’t exist with them. There is no notion of pain without our perception of it. Pain does not exist independently of our perception of it so I’m not sure what you’re referring to when you say ‘just the pain’.

Reply: I am arguing that pain is not analogous to perceiving a white rose, or to perception of any object in the external environment. Pain is not an ‘object’. Not so long ago, pain was widely identified with the noxious stimulus. Nowadays, some researchers identify pain with a neural activation pattern. Failure to verify pathology can lead to some patients with pain being stigmatised by HCPs.

When I perceive a white rose, there is the rose, and my perceiving it. But ‘pain perception’ is not like this, because feeling a pain is just having a pain (and vice versa). To say that ‘I know I am in pain because I feel it’ just says ‘I know I have a pain because I have a pain’, which doesn’t explain how you know that you have a pain (compare ‘How do you know that you see a rose?’).

The phrase ‘pain perception’ obscures this difference, and understanding this point can help us be a little clearer about the ‘meaning’ of pain.


Question: But aren’t there two (or more things) involved? Say you get a paper cut. There is the cut, with mechanical and chemical nociceptors sending signals to the CNS, and your brain’s perception of the cut and those signals. Your brain perceives a threat and creates pain. There is a rose, and your brain’s perception of the light reflecting off the rose into your eyes, and your brain creates “white”.

Reply: Nice observation! But, my argument doesn’t rely on knowledge of mechanism, but personal experience. That doesn’t limit the clinical relevance of the argument, since clinical decisions are often based on scientific knowledge and personal understanding (‘prior experience’, ‘intuition’, ‘gut feelings’).

2 thoughts on ““Pain and perception” – some questions and answers

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