Pain: is it a perception?

Is it accurate to say that you have a pain in your left foot because you feel – perceive – the pain there? Is feeling pain a perception? Many publications in the scientific pain field say so; e.g.:

“Pain is a complex, multidimensional perception that varies in quality, strength, duration, location, and unpleasantness.”

“The role of the cortex in human pain perception remained controversial until the advent of non-invasive brain imaging technologies. Over the last fifteen years solid evidence was generated indicating that multiple cortical and subcortical structures are involved in human pain perception. The general assumption from the studies performed in healthy subjects and studying primarily pain after acute, experimental stimuli, is the notion that activation of a fixed set of brain structures evoke this percept…”

Pain is a perception, not a sensation – Mick Thacker – One Thing

I think the view of pain as a perception merges qualities of what is experienced (e.g., the painfulness of the pain) with qualities of the experience (e.g., burning, stabbing, piercing).

The pain is what is painful, not the feeling of it.

In the same way, the white rose I see is white, not my seeing of it.
The tightness of my new shoes is not tight, the shoes are.
The bang I hear is loud, not my hearing of it.

Therefore, a perceived quality is not a quality of a perception. Pain is not a perception.

To feel pain is to have pain – not to feel pain and, in addition, to perceive it.

Thoughts on “Reconsidering fetal pain” – by Stuart WG Derbyshire & John C Bockmann

Sculpture by Fabio Viale

“…we propose that the fetus experiences a pain that just is and it is because it is, there is no further comprehension of the experience, only an immediate apprehension.” – Reconsidering Fetal Pain (2019), by Stuart WG Derbyshire, John C Bockmann

I agree with this proposal.

Experiencing pain is being in an animal-like state. But, experiencing pain is not knowing that this is pain. I think experiencing pain becomes a state of knowing only if a person is a competent language user. 

A consequence of this idea is that pain experience is not always immediately transparent or lucid to the person experiencing it. Odd as it sounds, to be in pain is not to know pain. This challenges the Cartesian philosophy of mind.

Following Derbyshire and Brockman, the fetus or neonate experiences pain, but without understanding or recognition.

Emre Ihan asked me: “Do you think learning is a form of recognition? A lot of neonates pull their legs away when nurses and their parents touch their heels, after weeks of heel lancing (heel pricks for blood tests). Could this be an anticipation of pain, and thus recognition that pain is imminent…”

Compare the neonate’s behaviour with a dog walking beside a road with the flow of traffic. The behaviour of the dog conforms to our left-hand drive convention, but it does not do so because it understands that convention.

In the same way, a chicken that stretches its neck and wings as in the mating ritual of the wandering albatross is not stretching its neck because it understands, or has a conception of, this mating pattern.

Point 1. There is behaviour that conforms to a complex pattern.

Point 2. This behaviour is not explained through a conception or understanding of that pattern. The behaviour just accidentally realises part of a complex pattern. 

Point 3. The explanation for the behaviour is explained by its relation to the complex patterned whole.

A plausible explanation of the neonate’s behaviour is in terms of the survival value to groups of humans of this form of behavior. These behaviours are performed because they form part of a hard-wired evolutionary pattern, not because the neonate recognises or follows a set of cognitive rules that are an abstract description of the pattern.

Thus, the neonate, like the dog or chicken, does not engage in their patterned behaviour “on purpose.” The neonate does not intend to follow rules or apply social norms.

Developmentally, that skill emerges later when the neonate is a child and learns, if it is fortunate enough, the concept of pain.