This is a serialization from my book, Happiness: A Physician/Biologist Looks at Life. To see the Table of Contents and the dust jacket blurb, click here; to start from the beginning, click here; to read the previous post, click here.
Variations on Pain & Illusion
Most of us have experienced something similar to hypnosis on a less dramatic level. When we are in pain, or sick, and something distracts our attention—a friend visits or we get caught up in a movie or a ball game—all of a sudden, we forget about the discomfort. If we stop and think about it, the pain or illness may still be there, but the distraction into our surroundings can greatly decrease the intensity, until often we become totally unaware of it. On the other hand, if we are in pain, and also depressed or tired, the pain can become worse. This is an important idea, because if we can modify pain, we can modify our experience of life.
There is another functional hallucination in pain: my brain not only creates the illusion of pain, but it also creates the illusion that the pain is actually located in my toe. While my brain is making me feel discomfort, and giving me a shorthand message for “damage,” it is also giving me another shorthand message for “where.” The pain is in my brain, not my toe, but it is projected into my toe. This illusion is similar to the sensation that vision is something we are experiencing in front of our eyes, when the experience of what we see is actually being “viewed” in the back of our skulls.
And with all of that, the brain gives us different qualities of illusions, different shorthand scripts, for different pains: a paper cut does not feel like a toothache, neither of which feel like an ankle sprain nor a stomach cramp.
The Importance of Illusions
It may seem that I am trivializing pain by calling it an illusion. I am not; for all of my medical knowledge about the body, and for all my theorizations here, when I am in pain, I want relief. I want a pill or a shot. Hallucination or no, pain is serious stuff.
Just like colors, pain is a very important aspect of life. Pain functions to let us know, immediately, that there is danger or damage to our bodies. It then encourages us to favor the injured area so as to allow it to heal quickly. So pain is crucial for surviving and functioning normally in the world.
And the alleviation of pain, in ourselves and in others, is one of the highest and most important goals we can pursue in life. Perhaps you are reading this to learn how to alleviate pain in your own life. I suppose I am writing this book so that we all might suffer less, and cause less pain for ourselves and others. Nevertheless, it is still amazing but true: pain is a functional hallucination.
Colors are illusions. Pain is an illusion.
Immersed in Illusions
And if you take it to the next logical extension, all of our experiences are illusions. All of our physical pleasures: good food, nice smells, comfortable clothes and environment; as well as the discomforts: heat, cold, blinding light, unpleasant noises, etc.; are illusions. Naturally, just as was true with vision, there are real things out in the world that stimulate our senses and the associated nerves. But thereafter, there is nothing but nerve signals going to the brain. The brain then constructs illusions—approximating reality, but illusions nevertheless—and a shorthand, based upon these signals. And that is our experience of reality.
We live with illusions. In fact, illusions are all we have. We are locked inside our skulls, and other than our thoughts themselves, all we really experience are hallucinations.
But the hallucinations are wonderful nevertheless. Our brains serve up for us a wonderland of experiences: sights and smells and sounds and tastes. This is the stuff of life.
To continue reading, click here.