A Question of Pain

Some days back I read an article about a girl who had a rare genetic condition that prevented her from feeling any pain. As I read the first few lines, I found myself thinking, “Lucky Girl, isn’t she?” It turned out the opposite. Lack of painful sensation meant she would do really harmful things to her body without realizing it: she had scratched one of her eyes so badly that it now has to be surgically removed. Pain, the article echoed, is something that is good for us; it protects us, and we seldom realize this. How true, I thought.

Today, on my walk back from work, I found myself thinking about this article again. What the girl could not feel was “physical pain” – pain as a result of some bodily harm. How would it be, I wondered, if there were a condition that would result in a human feeling no “mental pain” at all?


Before I go any further, I told myself, I should clearly define what that meant. Tricky issue. While it is relatively easy to quantify and visualize “physical pain” (something that you feel as a response to a physical stimulus, internal or external to the body), it isn’t so with “mental pain”: there is a gradient of responses (to internal and external stimuli) that could come under this label, and that makes it rather fuzzy.

To simplify things, let us say there exists a threshold of “well being”, and a state of mind below this threshold represents “mental pain”.

With this definition, a person with this “painless” condition would never get into a state of mind that is below this threshold. He or she would always be in a state of “well being” or above it.

How would such a person behave in society?

The little girl’s story showed us that we do not do certain things to ourselves because that would be physically painful to us. Similarly, are there things we do not do – to ourselves, and more importantly, to others – since doing them would bring us “mental pain”?

Are we nice and civil to others because being otherwise would result in them reciprocating in a similar manner, and that would hurt us (bring us mental pain)?

If we unconsciously follow the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”), it would mean that how we want to be treated plays an important role in our own behavior. Now if a person does not care how s/he is treated (because it does not reduce the person’s state of mind to a level that would affect him/her), how would such a person behave?

Take a look around you. Are people who are very sensitive also very careful? Are those who are thick-skinned more prone towards rash behavior?

In another dimension, how lucky or unlucky is such a person?

When first confronted with this possibility, we may conclude that such a person is rather lucky, as s/he would never experience grief the way we normal humans do. But is that good?

How would such a person sympathize or empathize with another person’s grief? How would s/he understand people’s behavior that comes as a response to grief? How would s/he care for people around such that they do not experience grief?

Do you still think such a person is lucky?

What if there was a condition – state – that did not have these disadvantages and yet have the advantage of not feeling mental pain? Aren’t we humans capable of achieving such a state?

“Between stimulus and response, man has the freedom to choose” is a quote I remember reading in the context of Victor Frankl, who survived the Nazi concentration camps because he chose not to be affected by it.

Doesn’t that mean that we can control whether or not we let our minds go below the threshold of “well being”? So it doesn’t take a genetic (or extra-terrestrial) miracle to achieve that condition, does it?

Does that mean we can – by controlling our mind – reach the state of “no pain”? Many philosophers and gurus would agree. Some, like J.Krishnamurti, would even show a way to achieve it: eliminate all desire, and you will eliminate all pain.

A state of no-desire, no-pain. A state of no mind.

Some would call that nirvana; some others would call it death.

7 thoughts on “A Question of Pain

  1. Interesting thoughts..on similar lines is the option for erasing unpleasant or painful memories? Would that be a smart move? Isn’t the learning experience worth it or even enough to keep us from harms’ way? As they experience is the best teacher, they were talking about the things that went wrong. Happy times sure make a good memory but the bad times teach the most.

  2. Agree with Patrix and you. I think you need to feel pain to appreciate happiness. You need to suffer to understand a cause to live.

    A guy in my office lost his sense of smell and taste in an accident. When you think about it, out of the 5 senses, these are two you can actually live happily without. You dont have to eat fatty food (which tastes good) and smell yucky things. But dwelling more into it, its pretty sad.

  3. not exactly.. ahem er … atleast w.r.t mental pain… do you really need to feel down in the dumps, distraught, agonised etc over a rejection by your partner or whomever to really ‘learn a lesson’ before starting to look out for another ? not really.. atleast you can save some time & maybe booze etc .. : )
    As for physical pain, already spies, terrorists etc use stuff that mitigates pain i think to not give away secrets during torture & parmanu – those who have known pain would know enough before they find their eyeballs in their hands – i think ! (hehheh!) : )

  4. Loosemuse: This is a bit dated, but it does take me a while to figure out your thoughts 🙂 The point was about the total absence of painful memory (leading to no conciousness of what such a painful experience entails). Once you’ve learnt your lesson, the necessity for further painful experiences is not so high, but as Patrix says, such experiences contribute to a defence mechanism we build to guard against further experiences of similar nature, and their value cannot be discounted.

    NAWCC: Would you like to learn how to do that?!

  5. er… whatever u say …
    but the point is we are bound to keep trying things & bound to fail… why bother about ‘learning a lesson’, or ‘remembering the pain’ or thinking about ‘all that suffering that was gone through [ Owww ! Gaaawd almighty ! ]’ etc etc ???
    [ BTW parmanu – ever thought of writing so that mere mortals could read & understand it merely ? that last reply sounded like a lecture !! any influence of Freud jung etc ? ;P ]

  6. Loosemuse: I guess it is a question of attitude (the part about learning a lesson), and there can’t be a definite right or wrong. You have a “get-on-with-life” attitude, and that’s really positive!

    You’re right about the “lecture” part – the last sentence sounded like something out of a boring textbook. Must have been in a lecturing mood when I wrote that!

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