On pain

I’ve realised that I can’t remember what pain feels like when I’m not feeling it. I don’t know if that’s normal but I may as well assume it is until someone tells me differently. I can remember what mild-discomfort-that’s-nearly-pain feels like but when it comes to actual I-just-want-it-to-stop pain I draw a blank. Obviously I remember I don’t like it, which is a good thing, because that’s the point of pain – if it’s to be a successful warning from your body about damage happening to it and a successful deterrent from doing further damage then it has to be unpleasant and you have to remember it’s unpleasant; maybe that’s why I’m surprised that I can’t remember how it actually feels.

I wondered if it might be that I can’t remember physical sensations in general but I can quite easily remember the feel of a hug, a massage, a bath, filing my nails and doing a handstand, so it can’t be that. Then I thought maybe I can’t remember unpleasant sensations, but that’s not the case either as I can remember the feeling of blocked sinuses and of having difficulty swallowing when I had infected salivary glands, which was particularly unpleasant and frightening.

So why can’t I remember pain? Not that I particularly want to, I just want to understand why I can’t do it. Perhaps it’s because when I feel pain there’s adrenaline in my system that makes me forget it? No, it can’t be that because I can remember the feeling of exercising competitively to the point that you feel completely horrible when you stop and there’s got to be adrenaline involved there.

I started thinking about this because I’ve had an RSI flare up over the last month or so and I was starting to think it was terrible and my body would be broken for ever and I’d never had RSI this bad before. Then I remembered that last time I had a flare up (about 10 years ago) I found holding cutlery very difficult and had to get a friend to pre-cut my food for me when eating in a restaurant. Even while experiencing some RSI pain I could not remember how it felt when it was painful enough to stop me cutting up my food.

Perhaps pain is such a primitive and primal thing that it doesn’t register in our memories. I imagine creatures have been feeling pain longer that they’ve had memories. If that’s the case, and pain had been functioning nicely as a huge evolutionary advantage before memories came along, surely there would be no need for memories to involve pain?

Or perhaps not remembering pain is an advantage in itself and helps mothers give birth to a second child and people go into burning buildings to rescue children. If it allows us to do something painful for a specific goal and helps people make sacrifices for others then that seems like a good reason not to remember how pain feels.


One thought on “On pain

  1. Liz says:

    I believe that it’s common not to be able to recall pain in detail and suspect it’s the childbirth thing you mention in your last paragraph. Going back to pain I’ve felt, I can remember the effect quite well (eg when my calf muscles went part way through a run, I can remember thinking I was going to be sick on the pavement but can’t summon up a muscle memory of the actual pain).

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