Illness, indefiniteness, diagnosis

Sculptures by Fabio Viale

Over on Twitter, Michael Ray tweeted this nice passage form Hari Carel’s book Illness, the Cry of the Flesh (2019):

“If illness is part and parcel of life, and on a continuum with health, then our experience of it will be as diverse as our experiences of health or of life in general. In other words, it would be difficult to generalize the experience.”

Illness is definite enough for us to see patterns in it. For example, frequent and severe pain often leads to help-seeking behaviours. But, it is not so definite to be describable in terms of fixed or rigid rules. If we do describe illness in terms of patterns, these must be sufficiently flexible to encompass a degree of indefiniteness – frequent and severe pain does not always lead to help-seeking behaviours.

This indefiniteness is important for human beings, as it allows for variations in our reactions to each other, and to what is happening within each person. Our reactions to others and to ourselves are not uniform, and often rely on context.

Imagine a people who articulated illness in terms of fixed rules; the behaviour of such a people would form simple patterns. Suppose,

  • The people maintain that the ill person always continues normal social roles the person takes for the duration of the illness
  • Normal role performance and responsibilities are continued so that the ill person can ‘battle through them’
  • The strength of this continuation never varies directly with the severity of the illness

The lives of such a people would be very different from our own, and how we would relate to them is unclear. A concept of illness governed by definite rules would be unable to cope with the variation, which for us, is the essence of life itself.

Parallel to the indefiniteness of the concept ‘illness’ in everyday life, is the indefiniteness of the diagnostic process. Physicians slowly move toward closure of diagnostic possibilities through testing and analysis, and through a ‘rule-out’ mentality, which may lead to a diagnosis. Diagnosis is uncertain. There are no fixed rules in medicine stipulating what counts as sufficient information to make a diagnosis. This overlaps with the uncertainty that characterises our judgements about what others are thinking, feeling, and experiencing.

By its nature, diagnosing illness is about managing indefiniteness: it attempts to reduce the level of diagnostic uncertainty enough to make optimal therapeutic decisions.

Intolerance to diagnostic uncertainty has negative implications in general practice, on patients, and the healthcare system. General practitioners who cope well with uncertainty are more likely to support shared decision-making. By attempting to achieve absolute certainty through a ‘correct diagnosis’, premature closure may occur in the decision-making process, thereby allowing hidden assumptions and unconscious biases to have more weight than they should, with increased potential for diagnostic error.

The indefiniteness of illness does not reflect the inadequacy of our language, but the complexity that characterises human life.

Reply: Todd Hargrove’s post “Is Pain a Sensation or a Perception?”

Todd argues for these claims:

  1. 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.
  2. The debate is easily resolved by simply looking at textbooks that describe how the terms sensation and perception are conventionally defined and used.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?

A Hybrid Bottom-Up and Top-Down Approach to Machine Medical Ethics: Theory and Data by Simon Peter van Rysewyk and Matthijs Pontier

Abstract

The perceived weaknesses of philosophical normative theories as machine ethic candidates have led some philosophers to consider combining them into some kind of a hybrid theory. This chapter develops a philosophical machine ethic which integrates “top-down” normative theories (rule-utilitarianism and prima-facie deontological ethics) and “bottom-up” (case-based reasoning) computational structure. This hybrid ethic is tested in a medical machine whose input-output function is treated as a simulacrum of professional human ethical action in clinical medicine. In six clinical medical simulations run on the proposed hybrid ethic, the output of the machine matched the respective acts of human medical professionals. Thus, the proposed machine ethic emerges as a successful model of medical ethics, and a platform for further developments.

Here.

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

Arguing pain-brain relationships in the fetus

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 [11]. 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.

References

[1] Apkarian AV, Hashmi JA, Baliki MN. Pain and the brain: specificity and plasticity of the brain in clinical chronic pain. Pain 2011; 152(3 Suppl): S49–S64.

[2] Wager TD, Atlas LY, Lindquist MA, Roy M, Woo CW, Kross E. An fMRI-based neurologic signature of physical pain. New England Journal of Medicine 2013; 368(15): 1388–1397.

[3] Derbyshire SWG, Raja A. On the development of painful experience. Journal of Consciousness Studies 2011; 18: 9–10.

[4] Anand KJ, Hickey PR. Pain and its effects in the human neonate and fetus. New England Journal of Medicine 1987; 317(21): 1321–1329.

[5] Anand KJ. Consciousness, cortical function, and pain perception in nonverbal humans. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 2007; 30(1): 82–83.

[6] Lowery CL, Hardman MP, Manning N, Clancy B, Whit Hall R, Anand KJS. Neurodevelopmental changes of fetal pain. Seminars in Perinatology 2007; 31(5): 275–282.

[7] Brusseau RR, Mashour GA. Subcortical consciousness: Implications for fetal anesthesia and analgesia. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 2007; 30(01): 86–87.

[8] Derbyshire SWG. Controversy: Can fetuses feel pain? BMJ: British Medical Journal 2006; 332(7546): 909–912.

[9] Derbyshire SWG. Fetal analgesia: where are we now? Future Neurology 2012; 7(4): 367–369.

[10] Szawarski Z. Do fetuses feel pain? Probably no pain in the absence of “self”. BMJ: British Medical Journal 1996; 313(7060): 796–797.

[11] Papineau D. Thinking about consciousness. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2002.

[12] Perl ER. Pain mechanisms: a commentary on concepts and issues. Progress in Neurobiology 2011; 94(1): 20–38.

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’

20140104_poster_ver4

Pain in the brain? The question of fetal pain

There is broad agreement among researchers that the minimal necessary neural pathways for pain are in the human fetus by 24 weeks gestation [1, for review]. However, some argue that the fetus can feel pain earlier than 24 weeks because pain can be enabled by subcortical brain structures [2,3,4,5]. Other researchers argue that the fetus cannot feel pain at any stage of gestation because the fetus is sustained in a state of unconsciousness [6]. Finally, others argue that the fetus cannot feel pain at any stage because the fetus lacks the conceptual postnatal development necessary for pain [7,8,9]. If a behavioral and neural reaction to a noxious stimulus is considered sufficient for pain then pain is possible from 24 weeks and probably much earlier. If a conceptual subjectivity is considered necessary for pain, however, then pain is not possible at any gestational age. According to [1], much of the disagreement concerning fetal pain rests on the understanding of key terms such as ‘wakefulness’, ‘conscious’ and ‘pain’.

A motivation for thinking conceptual subjectivity is necessary for pain is the idea that subjective experiences such as pain cannot be reduced to or identified with the objective features of the brain [7,8,9]. All pains are personal experiences and therefore entirely subjective; all brain states are physical events and therefore entirely objective. There is a fundamental divergence between pain and the brain. Thus, pain cannot be in the brain. The basic argument:

1. Pain experiences are subjective.

2. Brain events are objective.

Therefore, since pain experiences and brain events fundamentally diverge,

3. Pain experiences are not identical to brain events.

Is this a good argument? Let’s examine its first premise – ‘pain experiences are subjective.’ On a reasonable interpretation of its meaning, to state that ‘pain experiences are subjective’ is to state that pain experiences are knowable by introspection. However, since brain events are not knowable by introspection, pain experiences cannot be identical to brain events. Here is the argument:

1. Pain experiences are knowable to me by introspection.

2. Brain events are not knowable to me by introspection.

Therefore, since pain experiences and brain events fundamentally diverge,

3. My pain experiences are not identical to any of my brain events.

Once the argument is represented in this form, it is clear that it is fallacious. This can be clearly observed if we compare the argument with the following example:

1. Ibuprofen is known to 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 the core idea of the argument – ‘fundamental divergence’ – makes an erroneous assumption; namely, it assumes that a thing must be known by somebody. But the property ‘being known by somebody’ is not a necessary feature of any thing, much less a property that might establish its identity or non-identity with some thing 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. These considerations challenge the assumed epistemology in the conceptual subjectivity view of pain.

They also challenge the related claim made by proponents of conceptual subjectivity that any description of a pain given in objective scientific terms will necessarily always exclude the personal experience of that pain [7,8,9]. The argument made here is by now familiar: since descriptions of pain in personal subjective terms are different from scientific descriptions of pain, it follows that a pain and its private subjectivity cannot be identical with a brain event and its public objectivity. Only persons can feel pain – brain cells and protein channels can’t. Clearly, the argument begs the issue in question: whether or not the subjective features of a pain I personally experience are identical with some objective features of my brain that might be discovered by neuroscience is precisely the question at issue [10,11].

Besides, in order to understand a scientific explanation of pain, neuroscience does not require of a person that he both understands the explanation and feels pain as a condition of understanding. Neuroscience aims to explain pain, that is its main purpose. Too much is demanded of neuroscience if, in addition to formulating an explanation of pain, it is meant to re-create pain in somebody as a requirement of understanding [10,11]. This expectation is therefore much too strong.

References

[1] Derbyshire SWG, Raja A. (2011). On the development of painful experience.Journal of Consciousness Studies18, 9–10.

[2] Anand KJ, Hickey PR. (1987). Pain and its effects in the human neonate and fetus. New England Journal of Medicine, 317(21), 1321–1329.

[3] Anand KJ. (2007). Consciousness, cortical function, and pain perception in nonverbal humans. Behavioral and Brain Sciences30(1), 82–83.

[4] Lowery CL, Hardman MP, Manning N, Clancy B, Whit Hall R, Anand KJS. (2007). Neurodevelopmental changes of fetal pain. In Seminars in perinatology, 31(5), 275–282.

[5] 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.

[6] Mellor DJ, Diesch TJ, Gunn AJ, Bennet L. (2005). The importance of ‘awareness’ for understanding fetal pain. Brain research reviews49(3), 455-471.

[7] Derbyshire SWG. (2012). Fetal analgesia: where are we now? Future Neurology7(4), 367-369.

[8] Derbyshire SWG. (2006). Controversy: Can fetuses feel pain? BMJ: British Medical Journal332(7546), 909.

[9] Szawarski Z. (1996). Do fetuses feel pain? Probably no pain in the absence of “self”. BMJ: British Medical Journal313(7060), 796–797. 

[10] Churchland PS. (2002). Brain-wise: V: Studies in Neurophilosophy. MIT press.

[11] van Rysewyk S. (2013). Pain is Mechanism. PhD Dissertation, University of Tasmania.

Why are pain patients all unique? A type-token identity theory answer

Variations in response to pain have been reported in clinical settings (e.g., Bates et al. 1996; Cherkin et al. 1994; Jensen et al. 1986; Unruh, 1996; Wormslev et al. 1994). Patients with similar types and degrees of wounds vary from showing no pain to showing severe and disabling pain. Many chronic pain patients show disabling chronic pain despite showing no observable wound. Other patients show severe wounds but do not show pain. Why is it that two persons with identical lesions do not show the same pain or no pain at all? Why are all pain patients unique?

I propose that mind-brain identity theory may offer an answer to this difficult question. There are two main versions of identity theory: type and token identity. A sample type identical property is to identify “Being in pain” (X) with “Being the operation of the nervous-endocrine-immune mechanism” (Y) (i.e., X iff Y) (Chapman et al. 2008; van Rysewyk, 2013). For any person in pain the nervous-endocrine-immune mechanism (NEIM) must be active, and when NEIM is active in a person, he or she is in pain. Thus, type identity theory strongly limits the pattern of covariation across persons. According to token identity theory, for a person in mental state X at time t, X is identical to some neurophysiological state Y. However, in the same person at time t1, the same mental state X may be identical to a different neurophysiological state Y2. Token identity theory doesn’t limit the pattern of covariation across persons; it only claims that, at any given time, some mind-brain identity must be true.

In response to the topic question, I propose a hybrid version of identity theory – ‘type-token mind-brain identity theory’. Accordingly, for every person, there is a type identity between a mental state X and some neurophysiological state Y. So, when I am in pain, I am in NEIM state Y (and vice versa), but this NEIM state Y may be quite different across persons. Type-token identity theory therefore proposes a type identity model at the level of every person (i.e., it may vary across persons). A type-token identity theory implies that group-level type identities (i.e., type-type) cannot fully explain the pattern of covariation in pain responses across persons. Measuring changes of a pattern of psychological and neurophysiological indicators over time may then support a unidimensional model of chronic pain for each pain patient. Thus, being in chronic pain for me is identical with a specific pattern of NEIM activity (Chapman et al. 2008; van Rysewyk, 2013), but for a different patient, the same state of pain may be identical to a different pattern of NEIM activity. In preventing and alleviating chronic pain, it is therefore essential to best fit the intervention to the type-token pain identity profile of the patient.

References

Bates, M. S., Edwards, W. T., & Anderson, K. O. (1993). Ethnocultural influences on variation in chronic pain perception. Pain, 52(1), 101-112.

Chapman, C. R., Tuckett, R. P., & Song, C. W. (2008). Pain and stress in a systems perspective: reciprocal neural, endocrine, and immune interactions. Journal of Pain 9: 122-145.

Cherkin, D. C., Deyo, R. A., Wheeler, K., & Ciol, M. A. (1994). Physician variation in diagnostic testing for low back pain. Who you see is what you get. Arthritis & Rheumatism, 37(1), 15-22.

Jensen, M. P., Karoly, P., & Braver, S. (1986). The measurement of clinical pain intensity: a comparison of six methods. Pain, 27(1), 117-126.

Unruh, A. M. (1996). Gender variations in clinical pain experience. Pain, 65(2), 123-167.

van Rysewyk, S. (2013). Pain is Mechanism. Unpublished PhD Thesis. University of Tasmania.

Wormslev, M., Juul, A. M., Marques, B., Minck, H., Bentzen, L., & Hansen, T. M. (1994). Clinical examination of pelvic insufficiency during pregnancy: an evaluation of the interobserver variation, the relation between clinical signs and pain and the relation between clinical signs and physical disability. Scandinavian journal of rheumatology, 23(2), 96-102.

‘Chemical Brain Preservation: How to Live “Forever” – A Personal View’ by John M. Smart

Chemical Brain Preservation: How to Live “Forever” – A Personal View.