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The International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) defines pain as ‘an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage’ (Merskey & Bogduk, 1994). The IASP definition of pain is unique in that it explicitly recognizes that pain is an experience that can be understood in itself, in an internal way, in contrast to prior definitions (Sternbach, 1968; Mountcastle, 1974) that defined pain in terms of external causal stimuli that are correlated in some way with pain feelings and sensations.

External characterizations of pain based on neuroscientific findings remain influential in the pain literature. For example, according to a leading theory, pain feelings and sensations are externally related to a brain image of the ‘afferent representation of the physiological condition of the body’ (Craig, 2003). Interpreted philosophically, this view of pain is analogous to the traditional rational-metaphysical presupposition that feelings are but ‘sensations or emotions of the soul which are related especially to it,’ as Descartes put it, and thus are features only of the self and not of the world.

But pain is not only a personal feeling adhering to the self but that through my pain I am connected to a felt reality of the world. This world is not a world of causal reasons but a world that tonally flows in a certain direction and manner (Smith, 1986). When a sharp object is painfully cutting me, I experience a feeling of wincing back and away from the object, and in correlation with this feeling-flow the sharp object is felt to have a tonal-flow of flowing forwards, towards and into me in a piercing manner. When pain makes me fearful, I experience a feeling-flow of retreating backwards and away from the existent that is threatening me. The feeling flows backwards in a shrinking and cringing manner; I have the sensation of ‘shrinking and cringing back from’ the threatening existent. When my pain presents the quality of anxiety, my experience does not flow backwards as a ‘retreat from’, but has the directional sense of being suspended over an inner bottomlessness. The feeling flow of anxiety during pain is a flow that hovers before the possibility of flowing in a downward direction. When pain presents angry retaliation, I feel an angry ‘striking back’ towards the pain-affected body-part, and as such flows forwards, towards the limb at which I am angry. It flows forwards in a violently attacking manner. By virtue of correlated tonal and painful flows, the world and I are joined together in an extrarational and sensuously appreciative way.

Instead of only describing the external things to which pain is externally related, it is also possible to describe pain internally by noting other internal determinations of the feelings and sensations with which it is united. Joint internal-external characterizations of pain very roughly map onto neuroscientific evidence showing that our cutaneous nociceptive system differentiates into interoceptive and exteroceptive causal features, such that our interoceptive nociceptive system signals tissue disorders that are inescapable, and causes homeostatic responses, and our exteroceptive nociceptive system extracts meaningful information about events in the world in order to effect behaviors that protect the organism from external threats (Price et al. 2003).

Craig AD (2003). A new view of pain as a homeostatic emotion. Trends in neurosciences 26(6): 303–307.

Merskey H, Bogduk N (Eds) (1994). Classification of Chronic Pain (Second Ed.). IASP Press: Seattle, pp 209–214.

Mountcastle VB (1974). Pain and temperature sensibilities. Medical Physiology 13(1): 348–391.

Price DD, Greenspan JD, Dubner R (2003). Neurons involved in the exteroceptive function of pain. Pain, 106(3), 215–219.

Smith Q (1986).The felt meanings of the world: A metaphysics of feeling. Purdue University Press.

Sternbach RA (1968). Pain: A psychophysiological analysis. Academic Press: New York.

Pentti Haikonen

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Simon van Rysewyk

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