David Amerland
The sensation of pain and neurobiology


I discovered pain on a hot Summer’s day when there was not much else to do. I was 14 and running on my own through an uneven wooded trail (now marked as Gertrude Petty Pl Track on the map) and there was a part of it about 250 meters long that would take me to the top of the Mt Gravatt lookout so I could then drop down the other side and follow it all the way back, completing a 5km uneven climb run. The part I was looking at has a 10% incline. So for every ten meters forward I climbed one. An incline like that takes the elasticity out of your leg muscles and then, as you dig in and tackle it, it works on your lungs until every step you try and run sucks out the oxygen from you. You get blackspots dancing in front of your eyes around the halfway mark. You have two choices then: stop and walk. Keep running and feel the pain every single step of the way to the top.

It wasn’t the first time I’d run the track. Being part of the High School training curriculum I started every day of the year with a run on the track. But that summer the 45-degree Centigrade heat, the fatigue and the track combined to reach a new peak of physical demand and as I the wall of fatigue hit me, I looked down on the sharply inclined ground, pumped my arms and grimly forced my legs to work.

Pain is an emotion. It’s the way the brain interprets sensory signals supplied by the body which is why pain is a subjective experience of an objective neural signal. This makes it unique to each individual and, sometimes, each moment with each individual with some mindfulness practitioners, having greater tolerance to pain.

When it comes to pain tolerance the popular notion that biology has equipped women to bear more of it better is actually not true at all. This is reflected in the way men and women handle chronic as well as temporary pain and the coping strategies they are advised to develop to deal with it better. Chronic pain is a little bit of a mystery but as begin to understand it better we also begin to see just how complex our cultural awareness of pain actually is.

Not only does culture play a role in how we define pain, so does, apparently, memory with women, maybe, better at forgetting painful experiences than men (which helps explain why we are not all the sole offspring of our mother).

Not all pain is physical. The neural circuits that process pain are always the same however. Psychologists suggest we should embrace pain instead of seeking to avoid it.

From experience we can all agree that pain, whether physical, psychological or emotional is very much part of life, or at the very least, our interpretation of some of the sensory signals we receive from the world and which directly impact upon us. How intense it is and how well we cope may well depend upon how afraid we are of it in the first instance and how well prepared we are to deal with pain’s inherent uncertainty. Memory (again), clearly plays a part.

There is another aspect here. Of all the emotions we can feel, pain can help us define ourselves. It helps us feel the boundaries of our existence and the realness of our situation. The pain we experience helps make us unique in ways we can both directly feel and understand. As the choice faced in Star Trek explains: should you be given the chance to have your pain taken away, would you agree?

Does pain anchor us in the world the way nothing else does? Does it make us face our limitations as the Bene Gesserit posit in the fictional Dune universe? - Would we, without any adequate experience of pain, be lesser human beings, incapable of true change and growth?

I don’t know. These are questions that are at the very root of our neurobiology. Just like ageing and death. I suspect changing them, change us. Fundamentally. From that early day back in Brisbane, I’ve, in a sense, learned to measure my own development through my capacity to accept and then overcome pain. We could argue that in the absence of pain I would have found some other measure; some other means to explore what I can and cannot do.

The argument is moot. I am still a biological being and pain is real enough. There’s no way not to feel it. We are as united by this as separated by our own very individual sense of the intensity of what it is we are actually feeling. And that makes the journey of our humanity both instructive and exciting.

I know there was no pain involved in your decision to get plenty of coffee, some cookies, chocolate cake, croissants and maybe some donuts. Have an awesome Sunday, wherever you are.

© 2019 David Amerland. All rights reserved