Do we mean to ignore meaning in pain?

Simon van Rysewyk, Melanie Galbraith, John Quintner, Milton Cohen

Although Pain Medicine is a rapidly developing clinical discipline, medical explanations about pain are often unsatisfactory. The problem seems to be with meaning: some people with pain do not find meaning in clinical discussions of pain, and clinicians typically are not looking for it. For patients with pain, biomedical information can be perceived as lacking meaning in relation to their personal experience. By contrast, patient narratives and stories about pain, clinical encounters and therapies, cautionary tales, and common-sense experience seem to offer meaningful and actionable information.

No biomedical explanation of pain, however useful it might be to a pain clinician, could describe the personal meaning or burden of pain to the individual. Traditionally, scientific research has had much to say about the physical nature of pain but much less about pain experience. It seems that one limitation in the ability of clinicians to effectively treat pain or pain-related suffering is an incomplete appreciation of ‘pain experience.’

This special series in Pain Medicine focuses on a pivotal aspect of this problem: how to understand the meaning of pain, for both the patient and the observing clinician.

Read the full article here.

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.

Request a pdf copy here.
Published in Meanings of Pain, Volume I. Purchase here.

Call for Papers: Pain Medicine Special Issue, “Meaning in the Context of Pain”

Sculpture by Fabio Viale

Dear reader,

Pain Medicine is planning an interdisciplinary Special Issue, “Meaning in the Context of Pain.” I am the lead guest editor; Dr John Quintner and Prof Milton Cohen are guest editors.

Meaning is an essential dimension of the experience of pain. Empirical evidence from qualitative and mixed method studies suggests that pain is not only associated with a common meaning of “threat” or “danger,” but also is experienced as immediately distressing or unpleasant. If this combined meaning persists over time, people’s concerns may shift from the experience of pain onto themselves as persons. As a result of this shift, powerful existential meanings such as hopelessness or loneliness may develop. Such experiential meanings interact with desires to reduce or eliminate pain, and with expectations about the perceived efficacy of a particular treatment for pain. These meanings may in turn result in a spectrum of negative moods, such as depression or despair, and negative beliefs such as fatalism. Such negative components of the emotional dimension are often at the core of the lived experience of pain.

Despite this evidence, the preference for and consequent overwhelming dominance of biomedical explanations in pain clinical practice and research has meant that this other dimension of the experience of pain has been overlooked.

Special Issue Themes and Sub-Themes

Themes of the “Meaning in the Context of Pain” Special Issue include, but are not restricted to, the following:

  • Common experiential meanings of pain in different contexts
    • Chronic non-cancer pain or cancer-related pain
    • Pain in special or vulnerable groups
    • Pain and mental illness
    • Pain and substance abuse
    • Pain and fatigue
  • How meaning modifies the experience of pain
    • Pain and personal identity over time, including stigmatisation
    • Family meanings and the experience of pain (e.g., “psychosomatic families”)
    • Perceived meaningfulness of life, including suicidality
    • How symbolic manipulation of meaning (e.g., verbal instruction) can change pain experience
    • Perceived meaning of different types of medical treatment
    • “Catastrophising” and “fear-avoidance” as expressions of meaning
    • The limits of meaning: when no meaning can be given to an experience of pain (e.g., “medically unexplained pain”)
    • Coming to terms with “pain acceptance”
  • Therapeutic implications of meaning
    • Similarities and differences in meanings of pain between the person in pain versus observers
    • The influence of meaning on pain scale ratings
    • Implications of meaning-making for self-control or self-management of pain
    • How patients’ meanings of pain can inform treatment planning
    • Strategies patients use to find meaning in their pain
    • Work rehabilitation and returning to work

  • Experiential research methods to study meanings of pain
    • Ethnography, narrative, phenomenology, grounded theory, and single-case study methods
    • Other research methods: Neurophenomenology, The Descriptive Experience Sampling Method, The Experiential-Phenomenological Method, The Elicitation Interview Method, quantitative designs, quantitative-qualitative designs

The meaning of “meaning” and clinical applications or implications of meaning in the context of pain must be addressed in detail in all contributions.

Keywords: pain, meaning, patient experience, pain management

Invited article types

Within the scope of the themes and sub-themes described above, the guest editors invite contributions considered in the form of the following manuscript types, in order of importance:

  • Reviews (e.g., Systematic Reviews, Meta-analytic reviews, Cochrane type reviews, Pragmatic Reviews)
  • Original Research (e.g., original clinical, translational, theoretical or philosophical research)

See Instructions to Authors in Pain Medicine.

If you wish to submit an article for consideration in this Special Issue, please let me know at: Then, email me a 400-word description/summary/abstract by November 1, 2019.

Thank you for your time.

Meanings of Pain, Volume II: Common Forms of Pain and Language (2019, Springer)


Meanings of Pain_Volume II_Cover

  • Provides a study of pain in which meaning is essential to the way pain is felt
  • Describes meanings of pain in patients with common forms of chronic pain
  • Discusses the importance of meaning in pain assessment, diagnosis, clinical language and medical stigmatisation

Experiential evidence shows that pain is associated with common meanings. These include a meaning of threat or danger, which is experienced as immediately distressing or unpleasant; cognitive meanings, which are focused on the long-term consequences of having chronic pain; and existential meanings such as hopelessness, which are more about the person with chronic pain than the pain itself.

This interdisciplinary book – the second in the three-volume Meanings of Pain series edited by Dr Simon van Rysewyk – aims to better understand pain by describing experiences of pain and the meanings these experiences hold for the people living through them. The lived experiences of pain described here involve various types of chronic pain, including spinal pain, labour pain, rheumatic pain, diabetic peripheral neuropathic pain, fibromyalgia, complex regional pain syndrome, endometriosis-associated pain, and cancer-related pain. Two chapters provide narrative descriptions of pain, recounted and interpreted by people with pain.

Language is important to understanding the meaning of pain since it is the primary tool human beings use to manipulate meaning. As discussed in the book, linguistic meaning may hold clues to understanding some pain-related experiences, including the stigmatisation of people with pain, the dynamics of patient-clinician communication, and other issues, such as relationships between pain, public policy and the law, and attempts to develop a taxonomy of pain that is meaningful for patients. Clinical implications are described in each chapter.

This book is intended for people with pain, their family members or caregivers, clinicians, researchers, advocates, and policy makers.

“It is my opinion that this … work will stand as the definitive reference work in this field. I believe it will enrich the professional and personal lives of health care providers, researchers and people who have persistent pain and their family members. The combination of framework chapters with chapters devoted to analysing the lived experience of pain conditions gives the requisite breadth and depth to the subject.” – Dr Marc A. Russo, MBBS DA(UK) FANZCA FFPMANZCA, Newcastle, Australia, from the Foreword

Review the Table of Contents and buy now on Springer.

Meanings of Pain, Volume II, follows on from Meanings of Pain, Volume I, published in 2016 by Springer.

Reasons for Investigator-Participation and Introspection in Pain Research

Reason 1: Historical Cases of Investigator-Participation in Pain Research

In the early twentieth century, scientists commonly viewed self-experimentation an essential part of medical research. Self-exposure to untested interventions was believed the most ethical way to assess human responses to those interventions, and to catalyse further research (Dresser 2013). Some of this research helped to found new scientific fields. Respiratory physiology was one such field, formed in the 1920s through self-experiments conducted by scientist John Haldane and colleagues. In 1984, physician Barry Marshall ingested Helicobacter pylori, which helped to establish the link between H. pylori and gastric pathology, and in 1992, self-experiments conducted by Mike Stroud and Ranulph Fiennes in Antarctica advanced understanding of nutrition in extreme conditions.

Self-experiments to study pain experience have been published by Sir Head (1920), Woollard and Carmichael (1933), Landau and Bishop (1953), Price (1972), Price et al. (1977), and Staud et al. (2001, 2008), to name only a few significant investigator-participants who studied pain. William Landau and George H. Bishop conducted standard psychophysical research on themselves to study the qualitative differences between “first pain” and “second pain” (i.e. “double pain”; later termed epicritic and protopathic pain) (Landau and Bishop 1953). Initially, Landau and Bishop identified through introspection the differential experiential qualities between first and second pain, followed by scientifically informed speculation about the mechanistic difference between the two types of pain. They discovered that first pain was sharp or stinging, well localized, and brief, whereas second pain was dull, aching, throbbing, or burning, and poorly localized, and longer lasting. The qualities of second pain were felt when skin C-nociceptors were stimulated.

These findings were subsequently confirmed by Price (1972) based on researcher and naïve participant introspective reports. Temporal differences between first and second pain were introspected on and mechanistically explained in terms of central temporal summation in studies by Price et al. (1977), and Staud et al. (2001, 2008), using investigator- and naïve-participants.

Conducting self-experiments to study referred pain, collaborators Herbert Woollard and Edward Carmichael observed that 300 g of weight placed on the right testicle produced slight discomfort in the right groin, while 650 g on the right testicle caused severe pain on the right side of the body. They confirmed that injury to the testicles caused pain to be referred throughout the body. For instance, as the weight on the testicle increased to over 900 g, they reported pain “of a sickening character” not only in the groin but also spreading across the back (Woollard and Carmichael 1933).

Self-experimentation on pain has on occasion led to surprising results. The psychologist B. Berthold Wolff self-experimented in his pain psychophysics laboratory, varying thermal pain which was produced at that time by briefly shining a strong light on a spot on the forearm blackened with candle black for a calibrated time and intensity of exposure (Hardy et al. 1940). On one occasion, Wolff pushed the button to deliver the noxious stimulus, but then something unexpected happened: he screamed with pain, which was brief but intense and filled his whole body. He described it as the most intense whole-body pain he had ever experienced. Wolff later discovered that the light stimulus had been knocked off its correct aim, and had missed his forearm altogether and instead diffused onto the opposite wall where it created a very strong flash of light throughout the normally dark room. Wolff speculated that, as he was expecting to feel pain, the unexpected flash of strong light had the same effect, producing an experience of pain.

It is unclear if investigators today independently conduct self-experiments or co-participate in their own pain studies. The convenience of recruiting participants from university classes and the internet may have made self-experimentation or co-participation of pain seem somewhat redundant to researchers. The Declaration of Helsinki advises on conducting ethical research using patients and healthy volunteers, although it is unclear if this is reason enough for challenging independent self-experimentation or investigator co-participation. In self-experiments, the researcher is both investigator and single participant, so the requirement for informed consent could be waived. Still, there is clear historical precedent for scientific investigators successfully observing and analyzing their own experiences of pain. The results of such published self-experiments have been integrated into the body of knowledge of pain, and replicated in numerous studies using naïve participant introspective reports and standard scientific methods.


Dresser R (2013) Personal knowledge and study participation. J Med Ethics. doi:10.1136/medethics-2013-101390.

Hardy JD, Wolff HG, Goodell H (1940) Studies on pain: a new method for measuring pain threshold: observations on spatial summation of pain. J Clin Investig 19(4):649–657.

Head H (1920) Studies in neurology. Oxford University Press, London.

Landau W, Bishop GH (1953) Pain from dermal, periosteal, and fascial endings and from inflammation: electrophysiological study employing differential nerve blocks. AMA Arch Neurol Psychiatry 69(4):490–504.

Price DD (1972) Characteristics of second pain and flexion reflexes indicative of prolonged central summation. Exp Neurol 37(2):371–387.

Price DD, Hu JW, Dubner R, Gracely RH (1977) Peripheral suppression of first pain and central summation of second pain evoked by noxious heat pulses. Pain 3(1):57–68.

Staud R, Vierck CJ, Cannon RL, Mauderli AP, Price DD (2001) Abnormal sensitization and temporal summation of second pain (wind-up) in patients with fibromyalgia syndrome. Pain 91 (1):165–175.

Staud R, Craggs JG, Perlstein WM, Robinson ME, Price DD (2008) Brain activity associated with slow temporal summation of C-fiber evoked pain in fibromyalgia patients and healthy controls. Eur J Pain 12(8):1078–1089.

Woollard HH, Carmichael EA (1933) The testis and referred pain. Brain 56(3):293–303.

Should investigators introspect on their own pain experiences as study co-participants? – Simon van Rysewyk and Carl L. von Baeyer

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van Rysewyk S, von Baeyer CL. Should investigators introspect on their own pain experiences as study co-participants? In: van Rysewyk S (2016). Meanings of Pain. Springer International Publishing AG: Switzerland.


The question of investigators introspecting on their own personal pain experiences in pain studies has received little attention in the literature. Study of this question may reflect ethical reservations about the many points at which self-interest may lead us to introspect on personal experiences through personal biases that in turn impair professional decision-making and perception. Despite this valid concern about research co-participation, we offer three reasons why investigators can introspect on personal pain as co-participants in their own pain studies. First, there is historical precedent for investigator participation and co-participation in scientific pain research using introspection as a study method. Second, general concerns about variability in self-report based on introspection on pain experience partly derive from true fluctuations in personal pain experience and perceived interests in self-reporting pain, not simply error in its scientific measurement. Third, the availability of the Experiential-Phenomenological Method, a mixed research method for the study of human experiences, allows investigators to co-participate with naïve participants in their own studies by encouraging passive introspection on personal pain experiences.

Download a copy of the chapter here.


First-Person Neuroscience of Pain: Puzzles, Methods and Data

Self and World: the case of Pain

The International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) defines pain as ‘an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage’ (Merskey & Bogduk, 1994). The IASP definition of pain is unique in that it explicitly recognizes that pain is an experience that can be understood in itself, in an internal way, in contrast to prior definitions (Sternbach, 1968; Mountcastle, 1974) that defined pain in terms of external causal stimuli that are correlated in some way with pain feelings and sensations.

External characterizations of pain based on neuroscientific findings remain influential in the pain literature. For example, according to a leading theory, pain feelings and sensations are externally related to a brain image of the ‘afferent representation of the physiological condition of the body’ (Craig, 2003). Interpreted philosophically, this view of pain is analogous to the traditional rational-metaphysical presupposition that feelings are but ‘sensations or emotions of the soul which are related especially to it,’ as Descartes put it, and thus are features only of the self and not of the world.

But pain is not only a personal feeling adhering to the self but that through my pain I am connected to a felt reality of the world. This world is not a world of causal reasons but a world that tonally flows in a certain direction and manner (Smith, 1986). When a sharp object is painfully cutting me, I experience a feeling of wincing back and away from the object, and in correlation with this feeling-flow the sharp object is felt to have a tonal-flow of flowing forwards, towards and into me in a piercing manner. When pain makes me fearful, I experience a feeling-flow of retreating backwards and away from the existent that is threatening me. The feeling flows backwards in a shrinking and cringing manner; I have the sensation of ‘shrinking and cringing back from’ the threatening existent. When my pain presents the quality of anxiety, my experience does not flow backwards as a ‘retreat from’, but has the directional sense of being suspended over an inner bottomlessness. The feeling flow of anxiety during pain is a flow that hovers before the possibility of flowing in a downward direction. When pain presents angry retaliation, I feel an angry ‘striking back’ towards the pain-affected body-part, and as such flows forwards, towards the limb at which I am angry. It flows forwards in a violently attacking manner. By virtue of correlated tonal and painful flows, the world and I are joined together in an extrarational and sensuously appreciative way.

Instead of only describing the external things to which pain is externally related, it is also possible to describe pain internally by noting other internal determinations of the feelings and sensations with which it is united. Joint internal-external characterizations of pain very roughly map onto neuroscientific evidence showing that our cutaneous nociceptive system differentiates into interoceptive and exteroceptive causal features, such that our interoceptive nociceptive system signals tissue disorders that are inescapable, and causes homeostatic responses, and our exteroceptive nociceptive system extracts meaningful information about events in the world in order to effect behaviors that protect the organism from external threats (Price et al. 2003).

Craig AD (2003). A new view of pain as a homeostatic emotion. Trends in neurosciences 26(6): 303–307.

Merskey H, Bogduk N (Eds) (1994). Classification of Chronic Pain (Second Ed.). IASP Press: Seattle, pp 209–214.

Mountcastle VB (1974). Pain and temperature sensibilities. Medical Physiology 13(1): 348–391.

Price DD, Greenspan JD, Dubner R (2003). Neurons involved in the exteroceptive function of pain. Pain, 106(3), 215–219.

Smith Q (1986).The felt meanings of the world: A metaphysics of feeling. Purdue University Press.

Sternbach RA (1968). Pain: A psychophysiological analysis. Academic Press: New York.

‘The Observer is the Observed: Towards Integrating Pain Phenomenology with Third-Person Scientific Methods in the Study of Pain’

The University of Tokyo Center for Philosophy, 3rd International Conference ‘Phenomenology of Pain’, Jan 4, 2014

The University of Tokyo Center for Philosophy, Uehiro Research Division,
Philosophy of Disability & Co-existence Project (UTCP/PhDC):

3rd International Conference ‘Phenomenology of Pain’


Pain experience and the self

Conscious pain is always personal. It is experienced from the view of oneself, and is not real or meaningful apart from this perspective.

All pains cluster around one’s personal aperture as around a single point or origin from which they are all perceived, irrespective of where in the body pain is felt. The sensation of a pain in a hand is sensed as located in the hand, but that pain sensation in the hand is not felt from the hand, but from about the same spatial location from which that hand is personally seen, even if pain is felt in complete darkness or in a dream. It is the ‘here’ with regard to which any pain is ‘there.’

It may intuitively feel that this single experiential point is located at the mid-point between the centers of rotation of the two eyes. Mach’s drawing above shows a monocular view of this point given in peripheral vision. In fact, the empirically determined location of the point is deeper inside the head, in the midsagittal plane, roughly 4–5 cm behind the bridge of the nose. Initially developed by Herring (1879/1942), this determination identifies the intersection of a few lines of sight obtained by fixating certain locations in the environment and aligning pins with them along each of the lines of sight or attention.

The self thus located is the origin of all lines of sight/attention and so cannot be any kind of self-representation (Merker, 2007, 2013). It defines the view point from which any and all representations of sensory experience are perceived, including personal pain. It is the point from which attention is directed and relative to which percepts are located in the space whose origin it defines (Merker, 2007, 2013).

To think that self must involve a kind of self-representation is to transfer sensory experience from the sensory state to one of its sub-domains (the self), which I think motivates viewing the self as a kind of cartesian homunculus. On this cartesian view, pain is interpreted in presence of the self. To my mind, it seems the other way round: the self in pain finds itself in the presence of pain (the ‘content’ of pain). The self of any conscious pain is not inherently conscious. Pain is intruder, not self. That is why pain is an aversion.

From this single experiential point we look out upon the world along straight and uninterrupted lines of sight. This orientation is dramatically reversed in the experience of pain. During pain, attentional focus is rapidly and involuntarily moved backwards along these same lines toward their most proximal origin. I believe this reverse direction helps to characterize the meaning of conscious pain as intrusion or threat to oneself.


Hering, E. (1879/1942). Spatial Sense and Movements of the Eye. Trans. C. A. Radde. Baltimore, MD: American Academy of Optometry (Original work published in 1879).

Mach, E. (1897). Contributions to the Analysis of the Sensations. La Salle, IL: Open Court.

Merker, B. (2007). Consciousness without a cerebral cortex, a challenge
for neuroscience and medicine. Target article with peer commentary and author’s response. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 30, 63–134.

Merker, B. (2013). The efference cascade, consciousness, and its self: naturalizing the first person pivot of action control. Frontiers in Psychology, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00501.