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The official scientific definition of pain was initially formulated in the 1980s by a committee organized by the International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP). This definition was updated in the 1990s by the IASP to reflect advancements in pain science and has since been widely accepted by the scientific community:

Pain: An unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage.

Note:The inability to communicate verbally does not negate the possibility that an individual is experiencing pain and is in need of appropriate pain-relieving treatment. Pain is always subjective. Each individual learns the application of the word through experiences related to injury in early life. Biologists recognize that those stimuli which cause pain are liable to damage tissue. Accordingly, pain is that experience we associate with actual or potential tissue damage. It is unquestionably a sensation in a part or parts of the body, but it is also always unpleasant and therefore also an emotional experience. Experiences which resemble pain but are not unpleasant, e.g., pricking, should not be called pain. Unpleasant abnormal experiences (dysesthesias) may also be pain but are not necessarily so because, subjectively, they may not have the usual sensory qualities of pain. Many people report pain in the absence of tissue damage or any likely pathophysiological cause; usually this happens for psychological reasons. There is usually no way to distinguish their experience from that due to tissue damage if we take the subjective report. If they regard their experience as pain, and if they report it in the same ways as pain caused by tissue damage, it should be accepted as pain. This definition avoids tying pain to the stimulus. Activity induced in the nociceptor and nociceptive pathways by a noxious stimulus is not pain, which is always a psychological state, even though we may well appreciate that pain most often has a proximate physical cause (IASP-Task-Force-On-Taxonomy, 1994: 207-213).

An apparent immediate and inconvenient fact facing pain reductionism is that pain stubbornly resists identification with only the brain. The original pain identity statement, ‘Pain = C-fibre activation’ (Place, 1956), neglects two essential features of pain observed in contemporary pain science: (1) Conscious awareness of wounding is multimodal and is correlated with integrated visual, kinaesthetic, and enteric sensory modalities in addition to noxious signalling (e.g., Chapman et al. 2008); (2) Wounding is typically part of overall bodily awareness that is correlated with multiple reciprocal nervous, endocrine and immune states (e.g., Chapman et al. 2008; Lyon et al. 2011; van Rysewyk, 2013; Vierck et al. 2010). Convergent lines of evidence demonstrate that wounding followed by pain is strongly correlated with endocrine and immune operations as well as sensory signaling that together exert an extensive non-neural impact. These operations interact and comprise a defensive stress response to wounding [1].

A consideration of the higher structures of the central nervous system (CNS) alone reveals an extraordinarily complex picture of pain. Unimodal functional brain imaging studies of nociceptive transmission, projection and processing show that signals of wounding reach higher CNS levels via the spinothalamic, spinohypothalamic, spinoreticularpathways (i.e., the paleospinothalamic tract) including the locus caeruleus (LC) and the solitary nucleus, spinopontoamygdaloid pathways, the periaqueductal gray (PAG), and the cerebellum (e.g., Burstein et al. 1991; Price, 2000). The thalamus (THA) projects to limbic areas including the insula and anterior cingulate, which have been identified with the integration of the emotional and motivational features of pain (Craig, 2002, 2003a, 2003b). Noradrenergic pathways from the LC project to these and other limbic structures. Accordingly, pain reveals extensive limbic, prefrontal and somatosensory cortical components. A meta-analysis of the literature described brain operations during pain as a complex network involving THA, primary and secondary somatosensory cortices (S1, S2), insula (INS), anterior cingulate (ACC), and prefrontal cortices (Apkarian et al. 2005). Thus, the brain engages in massive, distributed, parallel processing in response to noxious signaling.

The mechanisms of multimodal integration pose a formidable challenge for pain scientists. Hollis et al. (2004) examined how catecholaminergic neurons in the solitary nucleus integrate visceral and somatosensory information when peripheral inflammation is present. Pre-existing fatigue, nausea, intense physiological arousal, and a systemic inflammatory response induced by proinflammatory cytokines (e.g., Anderson, 2005; Eskandari et al. 2003) are all correlated with sensory signalling in the experience of pain. In addition to Craig (2002, 2003a, 2003b), an increasing number of studies have investigated the integration of information from multiple sensory modalities and central operations correlated with emotion and cognition in pain (e.g., Bie et al. 2011; Liu et al. 2011; Neugebauer et al. 2009). The more we are able to delineate the qualia of pain and map these experiences onto specific multimodal physical operations, the closer we come to identifying pain with those operations.

So, why has Place’s (1956) original pain identity statement survived in philosophy of mind? One reason is that the use of ‘C-fibre activation’ by identity philosophers is merely a placeholder for whatever the eventual mechanisms of nervous systems prove to be. We now know that wounding is identical to specific endocrine and immune operations in addition to sensory signaling. These operations interact and in concert comprise a defensive stress response to wounding. However, the purpose of calling it the identity theory of mind is to separate it from philosophical theories that identify mental states with states of immaterial souls or minds (dualism), abstract machine systems (functionalism), or those theories that reject the reality of mental states (eliminativism). It is not to make any substantive assumption about the sensory modality. This is why Place’s (1956) pain identity claim of C-fibre activation has survived, despite being explanatorily incomplete.

[1]In clinical settings, problems of acute and chronic pain do not easily conform to pain-brain type identities. The persistence of chronic pain as a major problem in medicine may indicate that identifying pain with the brain (‘pain in the brain’) has failed to inform clinicians toward curative interventions (e.g., Chapman et al. 2008).


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