Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Purpose of Pain

This title doesn't refer to the metaphysical question of why suffering exists. (My favorite book on that topic is THE PROBLEM OF PAIN, by C. S. Lewis.) I'm talking about the biological and evolutionary reason for the sensation of pain. That subject comes to mind because, with age, I've started collecting a variety of physical aches and pains, none of them disabling yet (thank goodness) but cumulatively annoying. Are we biologically fated to put up with this nuisance, which in many cases can escalate to the level of extreme distress? Of course, I know why it evolved. Without that warning signal, we wouldn't notice when our bodies are being damaged. People born with congenital insensitivity to pain tend to hurt themselves a lot and often die prematurely. But does the process have to work as harshly as it does? Why can't the pain stop when the cause of the damage has been discovered and addressed? Instead, it may hang around throughout the healing stage. Also, some people suffer for years without any definite cause being identified. And women, at least, are stuck with some pains that seem completely pointless, as in severe menstrual cramps and the contractions of the advanced phase of childbirth. Why couldn't labor signs consist of mild cramps that get only closer together, not more intense, as the moment of delivery approaches?

Organisms too "primitive" to have brains with which to be aware of discomfort nevertheless recoil from hazardous stimuli. A robot could theoretically be programmed to avoid potential damage without consciousness. Why can't our nervous systems be programmed that efficiently? Yes, we need a warning device. But does it have to inflict discomfort or agony? Couldn't we experience a mild zap, like static electricity, which would recur every minute or so until we fixed the problem? Why didn't we evolve the ability to turn off pain as soon as we've found the source and started fixing the problem? Wouldn't it be nice to have a control panel in the brain with a "red alert" button we could switch off after acknowledging it?

The obvious catch is that if the damage signal didn't cause extreme distress, we might ignore it. Most of us know people who act as if powering through sickness or injury makes them tough guys (or gals). A highly rational being such as a Vulcan would respond appropriately to pain stimuli and wouldn't abuse the ability to suppress it at will. If we can't possess the rationality and control over autonomic body functions that Vulcans enjoy, couldn't we at least have some less agonizing system? Maybe if we ignored damage signals for too long, we could abruptly lose the use of some minor appendage or function, to jolt us into taking action. I'd accept that alternative over severe cramps or stabbing pains. For instance, this relatively mild but annoying chronic ache in the arms from shoulder tendinitis. I adjust positions for sleeping and computer use, conscientiously perform recommended exercises, avoid muscle strain, and apply ice to the affected areas. What more does it want from me? Why isn't there a handy diagnostic screen where I can check the status of the condition and respond accordingly? In some respects, the design of the human body leaves a bit to be desired.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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