Neural Plasticity and the Malleability of Pain

Grant Gillett

Collage by Alexey Kondakov

Pain is a product of our neural networks painstakingly formed through phylogeny and ontogeny. Neural pathways form within neural nets as a result of long term potentiation and other dynamic mechanisms that subserve learning and memory and are modified so therefore form a key part of what Foucault calls “a volume in perpetual disintegration,” constantly reinforcing connections that capture points of experiential association and gradually dismantling networks that are no longer relevant to the organism’s affordances (points of biological significance in a stimulus environment).

Human pain, seen as an experience with a pivotal role in human interactions, and with a number of psychologically inflected varieties and meanings, is therefore not only a neural phenomenon, but also a moral one. It is moral in that it reflects influences from our engagement in a context of human adaptation that is discursive and interpersonal, one that is heavily inscribed by cultural stereotypes and practices that shape who we are and how we understand and give an account of ourselves. To be, in that sense, is to be humanly engaged in the world, including the world of the clinic and its mores whenever and wherever we enter into it.

Unlike experiences mediated by brain pathways designed to transmit and analyse information that tracks and details affairs in the world around us, pain impulses “diffuse” themselves in order to excite reactions and responses such that the primary destination is not the perceptual and analytic areas of the cortex, but areas which convey the impact of the world upon the subjective body and set in motion the body’s highly mediated reaction to contingencies (the touch of the real).

A major feature of complex and mediated cognitive and conative reactions is that, whereas animal drives reflect a simple psychic economy adapted to the natural world, human drives reflect a transformation into terms adapted to a life-world where we tell ourselves and others what is happening and negotiate what should be done to meet the challenges we face.

Gillett G. Neural Plasticity and the Malleability of Pain. In: Meanings of Pain. 2016. (pp. 37-53). Springer, Cham.

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Published in Meanings of Pain, Volume I. Purchase here.