Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Pain's Remains

The auditorium was fraught with nervous onlookers as the doctor put on his mask and gloves and prepared to take his needle and thread to the conscious patient's tied down leg. As he drove the needle through the patient's flesh, the patient let out a ravaging scream of pain. But the next second he was calm as could be. "How do you find that?", asked the doc. "Quite, fine", replied the patient with a cheery smile. "I do remember you putting the needle through me, but I don't remember any pain." "So do you have any objection if I do the next stitch?" "Not at all, I'm not anxious at all," replied the patient, much to the amazement of the crowd. The doc turns and explains, "The process I have developed does not remove the sensation of pain, like an anesthetic, but it removes the memory of the pain which was on the patient's nervous system. If you're not going to remember your fleeting momentary pain, why fear it? The patient here, just demonstrated that. This enables us to conduct surgery even while the patient is fully conscious" (Source: The Pig That Wants to be Eaten, Julian Baggini)

Thought experiments such as the ones I've been trying to analyze/think about, do get bizarre, sometimes stretching the boundaries of imagination, reason and plain comprehension. Many get me to the point of plain exasperation and agitation at just splitting hairs. This one surely qualifies as one of those. Yet, I'm aware that such excerpts also do make me confront those seemingly basic and most elementary of concepts that have been imbibed in me. It painfully makes me reevaluate and understand every single strand of reason and thought in me, makes me dig so far deep into the roots to discover that minute particle of reason, that although seems so pointless and unnecessary, does help me gain more clarity about how my thoughts have sprouted, where they've sprouted from, how they are connected, and how much pure reason is responsible for them. In the process of searching, I also end up rearranging a few to sit in the right places and brushing off the dust bunnies on those I haven't used in a long time. So, well, I'm ready to face yet another journey down the crevices.

Why is pain bad? What is pain? How is pain different from suffering?

Inflicting pain is associated with immorality since it leads to misery and suffering. Pain is not just the momentary sensation of misery, but it also forms a component of fear, due to the miserable anticipation, and the memory of going through the trauma and healing the scars. When the memory of the pain is removed, it is hypothesized that one will no longer have any fear of facing it. If my memory of the pain of scathing myself is removed, I wouldn't know how it feels like to burn myself, and hence will have little fear. If all that's remaining is just the momentary shoots of fleeting pain, will that qualify as suffering? If inflicting pain is bad, is it still wrong if the suffering associated with it is removed? I answer, YES and YES.

For one, even if I have never been subject to a particular type of pain, my knowledge that it will hurt, is enough to put me into a fearful anticipation of it. I have never had a root canal treatment, yet I wouldn't say I am fearless about it. I wouldn't care if I lose my memory of the pain, I would still be apprehensive of the anticipation, because it's common sense that it will hurt without Novocaine. The patient in the excerpt is just weird and brave, maybe masochistic. Secondly, even if the pain be fleeting, lasting just a second and I'm assured of forgetting it, time is but abstract. Those 60 milliseconds, 3600 microseconds can last an eternity in my head. And to subject any person, any animal with the argument that the person/animal will only experience a series of momentary sensations of pain, which will be forgotten, does not hold strong. In that one second, the body and mind is put through searing torture, and nothing can justify inflicting it, when it can be avoided. It still qualifies as suffering.

Maybe if all my sensations of pain (spanning my whole life) are removed, would I be any braver, because I don't even know the meaning of pain? No. I can still see people scream with pain as a needle is stuck into them, and that's enough to make me suffer with fear of anticipation. That's just me. Many times, it's not just the memory, or anticipation of the pain, it's the combined trauma of going through something unpleasant. To me surgery is unpleasant. And why would compassionate and rational human beings try to inflict something unpleasant, however brief, when it can be avoided?

Some argue that pain is merely a state of mind, and I have heard of great people going through surgeries without anesthesia. This analysis doesn't apply to such enlightened people. It concerns those people who still haven't conquered pain. It is not the least bit ethical to inflict pain on such people, when it can be avoided.

PS - My rambling does not include a major component of most pain - the emotional aspect. The thought experiment is merely concerning physical pain; whether in concept, the definition of physical pain and the fear of it will cease to exist if the sensation of physical pain is removed from memory. Doing so is obviously against the basic lessons Nature tries to teach us and survival will be pretty hard, but that is beyond this particular thought experiment. It concerns the ethics of inflicting pain, if the concept of physical pain ceases to exist.


Oorja said...

when we were babies were we brave about everything..?

we did not have any previous memory of anything and all was new. and so we ventured to experience everthing unknowing that it might inflict pain.

now a grown person who has experienced or seen someone who has might / will not behave in the same manner even if he's told it will never hurt and you'll never feel anything. as the memory itself is enough to create panic and fear.

here also the person screamed at the first instance but after actually knowing it won't hurt became calmer as he actually experienced non pain. if he were just told that it will not hurt he would not have been this brave.

SecondSight said...

Wow, this is one weird post!:) I've read it over three times, and I'm still not sure I can dissociate sensation and memory like that. If you don't remember pain, then how do you define it?
And how does this creepy surgeon deal with chronic pains, like if he had a patient with a gash in their head? They blank out any memory of a headache, but remember the man who hit them over the head with a hammer? Would they still feel mad at him, since he didnt cause them any memorable pain?
Or if you went to work with a headache, you'd remember everything about your day except the pain.. ?

You had this post a while back, about babies and learning and so on- we were talking about how when you walk into a room for the first time, how you identify something you've never seen before?

I agree with you that its morally wrong to inflict pain, regardless of how fleeting.. but somehow I'm not able to get past the apparent incongruence of the ideas in the book to start with.. :)

Neeraja said...

Oorja and SecondSight - Thanks for sharing and I empathize the confusion you're facing :).

SecondSight, special thanks for going through this 3 times..haha :). You've hit on the point the thought experiment tried to convey. How do we define pain if the memory of the sensation doesn't exist. Does it mean we can eliminate the concept of pain itself and does that mean inflicting such non-expressible, "pain" is not wrong anymore?

And my rambling tried to answer those questions. You're right, a person will only remember someone hitting them, but will not register the pain. But will he not be mad at the person, that's a good question. I guess the hatred shown by the person is enough to make one feel angry, upset even if there is no physical pain. Emotional pain is much higher.

What if it's a chronic, continuous pain. Imagine a person wincing and smiling every other second, for he registers only momentary sensations of pain in multiple series, which he of course keeps forgetting. It's like a cruel game played on the body and mind.

Yes, it's true that if were to exist by ourselves, we would never register/learn about pain and will continue to commit the same mistakes, just like an innocent baby. But we exist in a community, and we are bound to understand what pain is, even if he have no active memory of the sensation. We see others wail in their moment of trauma and we learn and wish it weren't us, even if we are assured to forget it. The few seconds when the needle comes near us, we fear and then scream during the sensation, although seconds later we have no memory of the sensation. Again, it just seems like a cruel trick to me.

SecondSight said...

More questions than answers.. Firstly, how are physical pain and emotional pain distinguished in the memory? We tend to term the emotional phenomenon 'pain'- even though it is a very different feeling from a physical injury. Assuming that we define 'pain' as the result of an unpleasant experience- If we don't remember pain, how do we define the experience as unpleasant? After all, if you don't remember someone's hatred as hurtful, then does that hatred mean anything at all?
As far as living in society and witnessing trauma- Imagine, for a minute, that you were watching the world with the sound off. You see a person in the throes of passion, and another writhing in agony. At the end of the experiences, one person comes back and tells you it was an amazing experience, the other has no memory of it. Would you want to go through the experience, not knowing that the two were different?

Neeraja said...

SecondSight - Ah, I don't think we can get into the real technicalities of biology here, for clearly this whole thing is a weird hypothesis anyway :). But, from what I gathered, the doc seems to explain that the sensation of the pain is removed from the nervous system...that part of the memory that stores sensations from the nervous system that is. Emotional pain is not really connected to the nervous system...it's mostly a subjective feeling, emanating from...heart, mind?

Given such a premise, I would still be angry, hurt by a person who hates me so much, regardless of lack of any physical pain. The emotional hurt hence qualifies as suffering. Regarding something like surgery the fact is, the person is aware of someone cutting open/stitching parts of his body, probably due to some health hazard, injury...these aspects alone qualify as unpleasant, isolated from the context of physical pain. Why are people terrified before a surgery when they are assured of being knocked out to feel no pain?

So the question is can you then inflict physical pain, if it ceases to exist in concept? I say no, because the person still feels/suffers the pain in the present (however "brief"), although he forgets his past in the immediate future. Assuming if I was a subject in this experiment, and I watched a video of myself screaming and smiling every alternating minute, I would feel violated of my dignity and rights, because it's just a cruel trick.

And to your last question - no I wouldn't want to be misguided in going through any experience - it's just being violated.

SecondSight said...

Hm, this is a nicely confusing thread- Considering how difficult it can be to diagnose pain in the first place, defining it in the context of an experiment like this is even more complicated !
I'd agree somewhat ambiguously with the first point, about emotional pain- I can see how one could associate some level of negativity with the person inflicting the harm..I'll leave it at that ;)
Surgery- Anesthesia horror stories, the many things that could go wrong are perhaps greater contributors to fear than a fear of the pain of the surgery, I think.
The last question- The only 'misguiding' would be in your own decision making, wouldn't it? Imagine ten people you talk to, six tell you ice-cream is sweet, the other four tell you they couldn't taste it. Given that you've had either positive or neutral feedback, would you try it?

Neeraja said...

Yes the misguiding would be due to me, from a technical standpoint, although I did what I thought was best. But, when the "experience" is artificially removed, without my realizing it, it qualifies as exploitation, violation and other such unpleasant things ;)

SecondSight said...

"But, when the "experience" is artificially removed, without my realizing it, it qualifies as exploitation, violation and other such unpleasant things ;)"

-But it isn't removed for you,is it? Only for those reporting on things, and they don't even know that it's been removed! :)