Todd argues for these claims:
- The debate is not substantive or of practical import. It does not involve disagreements about pain physiology, what causes pain, or how pain should be treated. Instead, the debate is semantic.
- The debate is easily resolved by simply looking at textbooks that describe how the terms sensation and perception are conventionally defined and used.
- These textbooks make clear that it is completely appropriate to refer to pain as a perception, and it doesn’t make much sense to say that pain is a sensation but not a perception.
- In any event, it doesn’t matter that much how we use these words in practice, because they are inherently fuzzy and often used interchangeably.
I think Todd’s post is a decent contribution to the question, and will make a positive difference to some patients and HCPs.
Below, some thoughts from me; Todd, if you read this, your response is very welcome.
Todd: “…the terms sensation and perception are inherently nebulous and there’s no bright line between them. Why not? Because they encompass a vast number of different physiological processes happening at every level of the nervous system…”
Me: The terms ‘sensation’ and ‘perception’ are ordinary language terms, and do not capture neurophysiological or genetic differences, but differences in the kinds of behavioural and perceptual capacities human beings are interested in. We are social by nature. Human languages include psychological terms because of our need to describe, explain, predict, and otherwise understand the behaviour of other human (and non-human) animals, and because of the need to provide such information to other humans.
Of course, psychological terms can be defined or characterised scientifically, but the original ‘home’ of our psychological vocabulary is the ordinary language we use every day.
Todd highlighted the indeterminacy of our psychological terms, such as ‘sensation’ and ‘perception’; e.g., ‘…there’s no bright line between them’; ‘…are inherently fuzzy, and are often used interchangeably’.
Me: I think the possibility of disagreement or uncertainty about pain in others reflects this indeterminacy. In our ordinary pain language, that indeterminacy is not due to neurophysiological or genetic factors, but to social patterns of behaviour: our concept of pain is flexible because pain behaviour, and our complex reactions to it, is diverse and unpredictable. Care-giving in pain settings can involve a threat to the caregiver, and is conditional on the authenticity of manifest pain behaviour. As observers of pain behaviour, we are sensitive to signs of exaggeration, suppression, or malingering, in behavioural displays of pain. Accordingly, our concept of pain does not always connect behaviour, situation, and personal experience, in a rigid way.
What could follow if we always connected behaviour, situation, and personal experience, in a rigid – necessary – way? To propose a simple, but rather extreme, illustration: suppose a group of people defined pain in terms of a particular neurophysiological biomarker, and used a sophisticated scanner to test for this marker. In their practice, the scanner’s verdict, and not the individual’s utterances or behaviour, is treated as definitive.
Would we want to call this practice a concept of pain? Would this practice be desirable or even possible for us? Would we, for example, accept that an apparent malingerer was in pain, if the scanner said so? Or, that a friend wasn’t, despite her facial grimaces? Would the absence of an abnormal scanner finding be held against a person applying for health benefits?
The new practice with its unanimity and clarity would be a far cry from our current, indeterminant, one. Although some people might engage in this practice, the fact that they do so perhaps makes them a different type of people from us?