Pain is a fascinating inroad to study consciousness. Pain can be either acute or chronic. In both cases, we can decide how the pain affects us. What does that mean? How can I affect my own sensation of pain? Or, as Douglas Hofstadter writes more generally in his book “I Am a Strange Loop”:
Who shoves whom around in the tangled megaganglion that is your brain, and who shoves whom around in ‘this teetering bulb of dread and dream’ that is mine?Douglas Hofstadter
I think the best way to explore the conscious control of pain is to experiment on yourself.
In the case of acutely felt pain, our peripheral nerves detect noxious stimuli in our bodies and alert the brain. Typically, we respond by retreating from or removing the injurious offender. For the purposes of this experiment, I ask that you choose not to.
I learned this exercise at a childbirth class.
- Get a large bowl of ice.
- Pick up one handful of ice, then another, so that you are holding ice in both of your hands.
- It will start to hurt. Do not let go of the ice.
- Try a variety of approaches to stop feeling the pain.
Note: You only have a minute or two before your hands go numb and the pain decreases without conscious effort. For repeat experiments, wait at least 15 minutes between trials.
What did you try doing to reduce the sensation of pain? Did it work?
We are social animals. Try the experiment again, with a partner this time. Can your partner do anything to reduce your pain? Can you do anything to reduce theirs?
In the case of chronic pain, the original offender is long gone, but your body is still responding with pain signaling. If you are one of the lucky ones yet to experience chronic pain, the following experiment may also work during healing from acute pain (like surgery or childbirth), or to reduce pain caused by muscle tension or soreness, headache, or migraine.
The following is a mindfulness exercise I now use regularly, taught to me by my therapist when I developed a migraine during our session. Sometimes it only gives me a brief break from pain, and the pain returns when the experiment stops. Other times it makes my migraine go away.
- Close your eyes and locate the pain in your body.
- Put into words exactly where the pain is and what it feels like.
- Visualize the boundary of the pain.
- Visualize yourself at the center of the pain (as a dot or in human form, whatever you like), then mentally move yourself outside the boundary.
Were you able to locate the pain? Did your pain level go down when you went outside the boundary? How did it feel to try to push yourself outside of the pain? What did that teach you about what the “I” that is you can do?
You can expect the topic of pain to come up many times in this publication. Self-experimentation will give you a viscerally-informed perspective as you consider the scientific literature, philosophical essays, and art on the subject.
I am very curious to hear what these experiments were like for you, so please do share your takeaways in the comments.