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.
Pain is another illusion. Say I stub my toe. There is some minor damage in the tissues, and a few cells are destroyed. From that, nerves in the area that sense pain are stimulated, and they fire off their signals to the spinal column. Several intervening nerves pass the messages on to different parts of the spinal column and the brain, and eventually they arrive at consciousness centers. At that point, the brain creates the illusion of an unpleasant sensation, of pain. Before the information is processed by the brain, there is damage; and there are nerve signals; but there is no pain inherent in either.
Consider that if I were to cut my stubbed toe off, the stump would be painful. But I would no longer feel the pain of the original injury, and in fact, we could then do whatever we wanted to the removed digit without any more pain. The pain is simply not “in” the toe.
Lack of Pain Illusion
As another example, if I were to block the nerve signal from my damaged toe, there would be no pain from any damaged tissues. This is exactly what a local anesthetic does: it blocks the nerve impulse so that the brain doesn’t “know” there is damage. With local anesthesia, we can cut and sew tissues, apply irritating cleaners, or even remove teeth and other appendages. So if I inject a local anesthetic, the injury exists; the nerve signals are being generated; but because the signals are blocked, there is no pain. The pain simply is not in the toe. It’s in my brain.
Another illustration concerns people who have lost limbs, but continue to feel “phantom” pain, a pain in a part of their body that no longer exists. Consider my toe that we “removed” previously. Say I crush my toe so badly that it has to be surgically amputated. After it is removed, the toe may be disposed of in an incinerator. Now it can become quite bizarre. I may continue to feel the pain of the crush injury that no longer exists because the toe has been destroyed; that would be phantom pain. But I will not feel the pain of the flames as the toe is being destroyed.
Likewise, consider that people who are deeply hypnotized can have the most “painful” surgical procedures performed on them, while feeling nothing. The damage is there; and the nerves are still signaling the brain about that damage. But the hypnotized brain does not properly process the information and pass it on to our consciousness, so that we do not experience the pain.
Pain Illusion without Injury
The reverse will also work. We can hypnotize someone and tell him that he is experiencing some damage—a burn, a cut, a bee sting—and he will indeed “feel” it, but now in the total absence of damage or external nerve signals. The pain is entirely fabricated within the brain.
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Detail, ‘Pardon Me’ by Norman Rockwell, public domain.