Dissecting the idea of pain, Michael Tye says one’s response to it is directly dependent on cognitive interpretation

None of us wish ourselves pain... mental pain is one thing but physical pain, which has been always underplayed in terms of the suffering it causes, is the focus of this talk. Is physical pain real? Does the injured part of the body face pain or is pain in the brain? What does pain reveal about consciousness? In trying to understand the most important experiential factor in a person’s life, Nigel Warburton talks to Michael Tye from Texas University, Austin.

Is there a philosophical aspect to pain? “Yes,” says Tye. “If someone steps on our toe, you experience pain in your toes, and it is different from experiencing an itch or a tickle or whatever. One question is if you have a pain, what does it feel to have it in your toe, and the second is how do we understand the awful painful aspect of pain. The first of these may seem to be easy to answer but it is not really because you can feel a pain in the toe even if you don’t have a toe... you know the well known phantom limb pain phenomenon... pain in this respect is like a perceptual experience... you can have the visual experience of a dagger even if there is no dagger (like Macbeth had). Analogously, pain too can be represented or misrepresented in a bodily part... so there could be pain in the toe even if there is no toe there,” says Tye, though he admits that in some cases there may genuinely be a bodily disturbance and it could just be mis-located to present itself as a pain in the toe even when there is no toe . In case of the phantom limb phenomenon, there may be no pain but the brain is just stimulated to feel pain even when there is none.

If you think it is getting complicated, you have not yet heard the most confusing sentence. Says Tye, “If you have a pain you will feel it and if you feel it, you have it.” You are not alone in wondering what Tye is trying to say in those words. What follows may help to make sense. “It is not like the feeling of heat. You could feel heat and have no heat around. So the feeling of heat and having heat are distinct, while the feeling of pain and having pain are not distinct. Why is this? Because pain is a feeling and it is nothing more than a feeling. It is an experience. Pain in the leg is a leg pain experience. Pain in the arm is an arm pain experience. Both these experiences have something in common in that both are painful experiences. They also differ because they occur in different parts of the body.”

Pain represents or informs us of certain bodily disturbances. In fact, that is the difference between a tickle and pain. A tickle may be a surface irritation, while a pain may be tracking or informing us of a different kind of disturbance. “Nonetheless this still does not come to grips with the painful aspect of pain. I think the painful aspect has in part to do with the kind of disturbance that is being tracked but it also has to do in parts with the idea that pains feel ‘bad’.”

That takes us to the essence of what Tye is trying to say: we may experience discomfort or pain in other situations which we think are pleasurable, then we do not call that sensation pain. “Pain represents bad disturbances in our body. So there is a valuation there.”

Greeks identified all pain as emotional expressions but modern neuro science has been able to separate emotional pains and physical pains. The similarity between emotional pain and bodily pain is the unpleasantness. “We want pain to go away because pain feels very bad to us... we respond differently to different pains depending on our cognitive interpretations”

So even though there is some valuation in what constitutes pain to different people, physical pain is real and is a warning signal from the body to address some larger issue.



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