“Me seeing you seeing my pain”

Meanings of Pain (Springer International Publishing, 2016) was created to advance understanding of pain experience as a bearer of meaning. Progress in modern biomedicine is necessary to explain pain and to aid in its treatment; yet, preference for biomedical explanation of pain in the field has meant that research and clinical attention to the experience of pain and to common factors of pain, such as meaning, as both a clinical topic and a research method, mostly remains a blind spot in knowledge.

Meaningful changes that we notice in others are often subtle and small changes in facial expression, and are similar to features of clinicians that patients find meaningful, such as aspects of clinician demeanour (enthusiasm, positive personality, attentiveness), which are often embodied in subtle facial expressions, gestures, or particular tones of voice (e.g., Gracely et al. 1985). Pain is a personal experience, not an action; yet it displays itself in those actions in which a human person in pain is revealed to observation (Craig et al. 2010). Body-parts are subject to involuntary changes during pain, such as reflexive withdrawal, but in the social transaction of pain, the involuntary changes revealed in the face are more meaningful than in other body-parts (Prkachin et al. 1983; Craig, 2009). This is because body-parts do not have the individuating meaning of the face: the meaning of revealing me, here, now. The expression on a human person’s face is largely determined by involuntary facial actions; yet, it is the living picture of the person that “peers” from it, and hence a concentrated symbol of the “self”. In facial expressions of pain, the face is not a mere bodily part, but the whole person: the self is spread across its surface, and there displayed.

Intentional control of pain through facial actions is normally judged by observers to be an insincere expression of pain, and open to doubt (Hill & Craig, 2002). The controlled pain face is perceived as a mask, which conceals the person lying “behind” it. The expressions on the human face are not always transparent effects of the personal experiences that elicit them, as perhaps they are in nonhuman mammals. Human beings can deceive through their faces, and children and adults can use the face to fake, as well as exaggerate, or suppress, pain (Williams, 2002). It is possible that deception is possible because we do not distinguish a human person from his or her face. Protective acts such as withdrawal reflexes, guarded postures, and disabled behaviour, can communicate pain to sensitive observers (Sullivan, 2008). But when I observe another’s pain face, I am not meeting 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 as one like me. There are deceiving faces, but not deceiving arms or legs.

Facial expressions of pain call on you to respond to me. As soon as I notice pain in another person, my responsibilities are engaged. I am held to account for it. The face has this meaning for us because it is the boundary at which the other in pain appears, offering “this person” as one in need of help. This feature is perhaps at the heart of what it means to treat pain. Care of persons in pain would be impossible without the assumption that we can commit ourselves through promises, take responsibility now for some event in the future or the past, and enter into obligations that we hold as not transferable to other persons—all of which are perceived in the face.

We may separate pain from its social meaning, and assign to it an impersonal, “bodily” meaning. However, an observation of pain which, whether or not intentionally, focuses exclusively upon the body-parts of another, but which neglects the preliminary changes in the face, as well as in the voice, hands and posture, perhaps is unethical. The failure to recognise the personal existence of the other in pain is therefore an affront, both to him and to oneself. In separating pain from its social meaning, we remove it from the interpersonal world of social relations, which compels us to recognise human beings as persons and sometimes to compromise or risk ourselves for them.

The most meaningful feature in displays of pain is the eyes, followed by brows, eyelids, mouth, head, forehead, and then other body-parts (Prkachin et al. 1983). Although glances are normally voluntary, they participate in the pattern of involuntary social communication where one person in painful distress is “revealed” in his body to the one who observes him. To turn my eyes to you is a voluntary act; but what I receive from you is not anything I voluntarily do. The eye enables the human person in pain to be displayed to another in his body, and in the act of display to call on the observer to intervene on their behalf. The complex transaction of pain involves the voluntary and the involuntary to co-mingle on the surface of the human body. The joining of minds that begins when an expression of pain is answered with a reciprocated response is partly fulfilled in “me seeing you seeing my pain”, which is not the reciprocity of normal cooperation, but of meaning. I believe many patients with pain desire to experience first-hand this more concentrated form of social recognition.


Craig KD. A social communications model of pain. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne 2009; 50:22-32.

Craig KD et al. Perceiving pain in others: automatic and controlled mechanisms. J Pain 2010; 11(2):101-8.

Gracely RH et al. Clinicians’ Expectations Influence Placebo Analgesia. Lancet 1985; 1(8419):43.

Hill ML, Craig KD. Detecting deception in pain expressions: The structure of genuine and deceptive facial displays. Pain 2002; 98:135-144.

Prkachin KM et al. Judging nonverbal expressions of pain. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science/Revue canadienne des sciences du comportement. 1983; 15(4):409.

Sullivan MJL. Toward a biopsychomotor conceptualization of pain. Clin J Pain 2008; 24:281-290.

van Rysewyk S (ed). Meanings of Pain. Springer International Publishing: Switzerland, 2016.

Williams AC. Facial expression of pain: An evolutionary account. Behav Brain Scien 2002; 25:439-488.

I am sitting on a veranda

I am sitting on a veranda on a summer afternoon.

The trees gently sway in the sunlight.

A quiet joy beings to arise in me,

a rejoicing in the world that includes myself,

these swaying trees, this blue sky,

and everything else that unfolds beyond all that I am perceiving.

The world, completely, and all at once, is fulfilled.