Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Pain Science

This week's New Yorker has an article "The Neuroscience of Pain" by Nicola Twilley.  It focuses on the British scientist Irene Tracey's work on getting an objective measure of pain and what could happen if such a measure were to be obtained.  Brain imaging offers some hope of better understanding pain. Part of the problem is that pain seems to be located in several parts of the brain, not just one.  Another part is that attitude, anticipation and other mental states have a strong influence on one's experience of pain.

The article touches on people who cannot feel pain and their plight:

While in Oxford, I met one of her frequent collaborators, the neurobiologist David Bennett, whose research involves patients who, because of rare genetic mutations, cannot feel pain. "You might wonder, Why are humans born with this system where they have to feel pain?" Bennett said. "And these patients give you the answer to that very quickly, because not feeling pain is a health disaster." Often, he told me, such people die young.

Bennett said that patients of his have chewed off the tips of their own tongues and scratched their corneas. They suffer hearing loss from untreated ear infections, unwittingly rest their hands on hot surfaces, and walk on broken legs, which leaves their limbs deformed. In an evolutionary context, Bennett explained, it makes sense that we are built in anticipation of pain: we are soft, and the world is a dangerous place. Undergoing an extremely unpleasant response to harm helps us avoid further injury in the moment and teaches us to reduce its likelihood in the future.

When I suffered attacks of painful diverticulitis, I found that if I stayed in bed and concentrated right on the pain, I could make it stop.  Many of the pains I experience seem to be reminders or notifications from my body. The pains tend to occur on the edge of my awareness, as though I am not supposed to forget about a condition.  When I focused steady, undivided attention to the pain, I didn't need a notification and temporarily, I had no pain.

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