Pain and Physical Pleasure and Their Perception
Rick Garlikov

Most people would probably contend that pain is a perception, and that they are not two separate things -- that if you do not perceive pain, then you do not have pain. Similarly with regard to physical pleasure. But I want to raise the possibility that they might be two separate things, or, more accurately that parts of our body might have pain or pleasure that those (other) parts we consider to be "us" do not perceive. That, of course, sounds impossible, but I want to try to explain how it might be quite possible.

Suppose we hit our elbow against something hard, either on the bone itself or on the nerve that gives the sort of jolt we call "hitting our funny bone." Or suppose, as an example of physical pleasure, someone scratches your back when it itches, or you scratch the itch yourself with your hand or with a "backscratcher" made for the task. Clearly we feel the pain in our elbow, and clearly we feel the pleasure sensations in our back. That is, we feel the pain as emanating from our elbow or as being in our elbow. And we feel the pleasure of the scratch as emanating from our back.

According to contemporary science, it is our brain that perceives the pain or the pleasure, and this essay is not intended to challenge that. But the question is whether the pain or pleasure occurs in the elbow or back and sends a message to that effect to the brain, or whether the brain/mind receives a signal of some sort that it decodes in some way and "turns into" pleasure or pain. The difference between the two is like the difference between mailing you a shirt that I buy you and mailing you a pattern for a shirt, that you then make. Either way you end up with the shirt that I initiated sending you.  But in the first case, I actually had the shirt and in the second case, I never had the shirt.  In the second case I only had a pattern for the shirt.  Or, if we want to take it back one step further even, I could e-mail you the location of a site where the pattern can be found (say, on the Internet, or in a magazine), and then I would not have had either the shirt or the pattern in my possession at all.  Yet I was the initial cause of your being able to have the shirt.

Modern electronic communication is, in fact, like mailing the pattern, in that when you hear someone on the phone, you are not hearing their voice in the same way that you are hearing them when you are in the same room with them. What you are hearing when you speak with someone by phone is a re-creation of the sound of their voice. Their phone takes the sound waves from their voice and translates them into electrical impulses or digital code, which is then sent to your phone and your phone translates them back into the sounds you hear. Radio and television do the same sort of thing -- broadcasters send out signals that receiving sets turn into sounds and images. CD's and tape machines turn digital or magnetic signals into sounds and images. Vinyl records do not store "sounds", but merely have grooves on their tracks of the sort that a phonograph player can turn into sound.

Now my question is also perhaps related to the age old question of "when a tree falls in the forest with no one around, does it still make a sound?" We believe, of course, that it makes sound waves and that sound waves make sounds when they come into contact with the properly working hearing systems of animals. But we also think that sounds are the mental phenomena that animals perceive, not something that occurs without a hearing or perceiving mind. The phenomenon I am asking about can, in this context then, be put as "If a tree falls in the forest, near a microphone or cell phone, and no one is around, except on another phone or near the speaker the microphone is connected to, does the sound occur where the listener is, or in the forest?" If the sound is what is heard as a mental phenomenon, the sound does not occur at the transmission end, but at the receiving end; what occurs at the transmitting end is the phenomena needed to make the sound. Those phenomena are then changed into something that can be transmitted to the listener and reassembled in some way to create the sound that would have been heard in the forest if the listener had been there. If there were a listener in the forest and at the receiver, they would both hear similar sounds -- the one from the air waves directly into his ear, the other a re-creation of what is necessary to make that sound. On this model, whatever is happening in our elbow or back is something other than pain, but the pain is created or "assembled" somehow in the brain when it receives whatever is coming from the site of the pain or pleasure.

But there is a further problem with the question I am asking. Consider first, when a tree falls in the forest and only a deaf person is around. If we mean by "sound" the thing someone hears "in his head", then there still is no sound. But now suppose, instead of a deaf person, we have a person who is perfectly capable of hearing, but who is concentrating so hard on something else --as when a husband watches a football game on tv-- that he doesn't hear the tree fall, or he doesn't notice that he hears the tree fall. Which is it? Would we want to say the tree made no sound when the man did not notice the sound? If we answer that it does not make a sound when no one is around or when only a deaf person is around simply because no one heard it, should we say that if the man did not notice he heard it that it did not make a sound then either? There is a similar phenomenon with regard to pain. If you have a pain, say, a backache that is plaguing you, but you happen to sit down and begin watching a good movie on television, one that you really begin to enjoy and get involved in, your pain may go away while your concentration is absorbed by the film. Is the pain actually gone then, or is it there and "you" (or your mind) are just not noticing it? If it is there, where is it? It is not in your mind. Is it in your brain? Or is it in your back but either your mind or your brain don't know that?

All these things are perhaps related, or perhaps they are not. The question I am asking here, though, is whether your nerves, when there is damage to them or their surrounding tissue, feel the pain and send that message to the brain, or do the nerves just react in some way that the brain then interprets and feels as pain. Do anaesthetics prevent pain from occurring in the first place or do they prevent the transmission of pain information to the brain or the mind? If they prevent the transmission of pain information are they preventing the transmission of pain itself, or just the information that the brain will decode or assemble or create or re-create as pain? Do anaethetics prevent us from having pain or do they prevent us from knowing we have pain?

Does it matter?

Perhaps.  If it matters, it matters, not to us as our perceiving selves, but it matters to the parts of our bodies or to dead bodies that may have pain but that no one can know about. If pain can exist apart from its perception by minds, then to ignore such pain is perhaps not dissimilar from ignoring the pain and suffering of other people just because we cannot perceive it ourselves and happen not to know about it.

I simply raise this issue as a perplexing problem. I have no answer to it and no better way to look at it.