How does the physical growth of the fetal brain relate to pain function? Addressing this question is not just of research interest, but has profound consequences in guiding clinical use of analgesic and anesthetic intervention for in utero surgery. Adult brains appear structurally and functionally specialized for types of pain; for example, acute pain preferentially engages medial prefrontal cortical and subcortical limbic regions [1,2]. However, the question of the relationship between such specializations and pain is still controversial in the debate concerning fetal pain [3, for review]. One ‘maturational’ perspective is that brain growth and pain function co-develop through innate genetic and molecular mechanisms, and that postnatal experience merely has a role in the final ‘fine tuning’ [4,5,6,7]. Evidence concerning the differential neuroanatomical development of brain regions is used to determine a lower gestational age when particular regions likely become functional for pain. Several authors claim that maturation within subcortical brain regions enables pain function as early as 20 weeks gestation [6,7], others claim expansion of thalamocortical regions at 24 weeks is necessary and sufficient. An alternative ‘expertise’ view is that brain development and pain function involve a prolonged process of co-specialization that is shaped by postnatal experience [3,8,9,10]. Based on this approach, some authors argue that the fetal brain is not functional for pain at any gestational stage because skills such as sense of self and mind-reading learnt in postnatal life are necessary for pain [3,8,9,10].
Maturational views of functional brain development assume that brain growth and the appearance of functions are equivalent or the same thing, in the way that water and H2O are equivalent or the same thing, which implies that concerning the question of fetal pain, the sequential coming ‘on-line’ of specific brain regions during fetal development is identical with the appearance of pain function. That is, pain function numerically shares all its properties or qualities with the brain. Things with qualitative identity share properties, so things can be more or less qualitatively identical. Apples and oranges are qualitatively identical because they share the quality of being a fruit, but two apples have greater qualitative identity. Maturational views of fetal pain demand more than this, however, since they imply numerical identity. Numerical identity implies total qualitative identity, and can only hold between a thing and itself. This means that a maturational view of fetal pain makes a very strong demand about pain capacity: specific brain regions and pain function co-develop in the fetus because they are numerically identical, one and the very same thing. Pain is in the brain.
Expertise views of fetal pain challenge the core maturational commitment of brain-pain numerical identity and present philosophical arguments and data which claim instead to show the non-identity of brain-pain relationships in the fetus and the necessity of postnatal experience and learning [3,8,9,10]. A representative philosophical argument driving expertise views of fetal pain is the following: All pains are personal experiences and therefore entirely subjective; All brains are physical objects and therefore entirely objective; There is a fundamental divergence between pain and the brain. Therefore, pain cannot be numerically identical to the brain. Thus, the argument:
1. Pains are subjective.
2. Brains are objective.
Therefore, since pains and brains fundamentally diverge,
3. Pain is not numerically identical to the brain.
I will now critically examine and discuss this argument. Take the first premise: ‘pains are subjective.’ On a reasonable interpretation of its meaning, to say that ‘pains are subjective’ is to say that pains are knowable by direct personal experience. However, since brain events such as brain growth are not knowable by direct personal experience, pains cannot be one and the same thing as brain events. Here is the argument:
1. Pains are knowable to me by direct personal experience.
2. Brain events are not knowable to me by direct personal experience.
Therefore, since pains and brains fundamentally diverge,
3. My pain is not numerically identical to my brain.
Once the argument is represented in this form, it is clear that it is fallacious. This can be observed if we compare the argument with the following example:
1. Ibuprofen is known by me to relieve pain.
2. Iso-butyl-propanoic-phenolic acid is not known by me to relieve pain.
Therefore, since ibuprofen and iso-butyl-propanoic-phenolic acid fundamentally diverge,
3. Ibuprofen cannot be identical to iso-butyl-propanoic-phenolic acid.
The premises in the example are true, but the conclusion is known to be false. The argument is fallacious because its core assumption – ‘fundamental divergence’ – is mistaken: it mistakenly assumes that a thing must be known by somebody somewhere. But the property ‘being known by somebody’ is not a necessary feature of anything, much less a property that might establish its identity or non-identity with something otherwise known. The truth of the premises may be due to nothing else but my ignorance of what turns out to be identical with what. This point entails that ‘being known by somebody’ is not a necessary feature of pain that might explain its identity or non-identity with the brain. The non-identity of fetal brain development and pain function cannot be established by this argument.
The argument needs to produce independent evidence for the idea of ‘fundamental divergence’, since it is not self-evident. To illustrate this point, consider the argument for pain-brain numerical identity that personal pain would have no influence on mammalian behaviour were it not numerically identical with brain events . This apparently simple argument wasn’t established until fairly recently because a crucial premise was not available. This is the premise that physical effects like pain are determined by prior physical causes. This is an empirical premise, and one which scientific theories of pain didn’t take to be fully evidenced until the middle and late twentieth century [12, for review]. It is this evidential shift, and not the apparently obvious, which is responsible for the argument’s persuasive power. It remains to be seen if stronger evidence for pain-brain identity in the fetus is forthcoming.
Of course, the failure of this particular argument to establish its conclusion does not thereby abolish the expertise perspective and self-guarantee its opposite, the maturational perspective, or even prove that the two perspectives are mutually exclusive. Rather, what the failure of the argument shows is that apparently obvious logic is sometimes a poor guide to reality. Whether pain-brain identity is true or false is impossible to tell simply by arguing personal appearances.
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