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Research Blogging

While awareness of qualitative research of lived pain is slowly increasing in the field of pain, it is far from established and needs cultivating from within the field by pain researchers (Mitchell & MacDonald, 2009; Osborn & Rodham, 2010; Price & Barrell, 2012). Pain research has traditionally been dominated by quantitative research methods, which have their roots in physiology, physics, biology, and psychophysics, arising from mathematics, statistics, and psychometrics (Price et al. 2002; Price & Aydede, 2005; Price & Barrell, 2012). This trend continues unabated today, and perhaps explains why Osborn and Rodham (2010) found that many individual pain researchers have not yet accumulated a significant body of qualitative pain research. A body of qualitative pain research would enable researchers to develop their arguments in more depth concerning the nature and types of personal meanings apparent in pain experience, especially clinical pain experiences across the lifespan. The rationale for conducting qualitative pain research is likely not clear to many in the field of pain, and researchers are probably unaware of the potential richness of qualitative pain data to uniquely describe lived pain or the diverse tools available for analyzing qualitative data. In line with this, Osborn & Rodham (2010) found that many of the qualitative pain studies they reviewed used only one type of analysis (i.e., data analysis was not triangulated), description rather than interpretation prevailed in discussion of data meaning, and research methods were not thoroughly described.

A powerful reason to conduct more qualitative pain research is the common complaint from clinical pain patients that they feel they have never had an opportunity to fully explore their lived pain experiences with health care professionals, that no one has ever fully understood what is wrong with them and, most importantly, that no one appears to be listening (e.g., Melzack, 1990; Hoffmann & Tarzian, 2001; Hansson et al. 2011; McGee et al. 2011; Thacker & Moseley, 2012; De Ruddere et al. 2014). Clinical failure to sufficiently appreciate patient pain and its felt meanings can result in profound patient dissatisfaction, exacerbation of feelings of isolation and confusion, among other negative existential appreciations, and cause up-regulation of nociception (Butler et al. 2003). Despite this significant problem in the treatment and management of clinical pain, some pain researchers (e.g., Apkarian et al. 2011; Wortolowska, 2011) and government agencies (e.g., National Research Council of the National Academies, 2008; National Institutes of Health, 2011) have argued for replacing first-person patient experiential pain data with brain-imaging data.

Although qualitative research alone cannot solve these challenges, because of its exploratory nature, it can complement quantitative clinical pain research to describe lived pain and the psychosocial factors that improve or worsen the efficacy of pain interventions, as well as core intervention components that are associated with desired or undesired patient outcomes (Price et al. 2002; Price & Aydede, 2005; Price & Barrell, 2012; Thacker & Moseley, 2012).


Apkarian, A. V., Hashmi, J. A., & Baliki, M. N. (2011). Pain and the brain: specificity and plasticity of the brain in clinical chronic pain. Pain, 152(3 Suppl), S49–64.

De Ruddere, L., Goubert, L., Stevens, M. A. L., Deveugele, M., Craig, K. D., & Crombez, G. (2014). Health Care Professionals” Reactions to Patient Pain: Impact of Knowledge About Medical Evidence and Psychosocial Influences. The Journal of Pain, 15(3), 262–270.

Hoffmann, D. E., & Tarzian, A. J. (2001). The girl who cried pain: a bias against women in the treatment of pain. The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, 28(s4), 13–27.

McGee, S. J., Kaylor, B. D., Emmott H., & Christopher, M. J. (2011). Defining chronic pain ethics. Pain Medicine, 12, 1376–1384.

Melzack, R. (1990). The tragedy of needless pain. Scientific American, 262(2), 27–33.

National Institutes of Health. (2011). Biomarkers for chronic pain using functional brain connectivity. Common Fund NIH Government.

National Research Council of the National Academies. Emerging cognitive neuroscience and related technologies. (2008). Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Price, D. D., & Aydede, M. (2005). The experimental use of introspection in the scientific study of pain and its integration with third-person methodologies: The experiential-phenomenological approach. In M. Aydede (Ed.), Pain: New Essays on its Nature and the Methodology of its Study (pp. 243–273). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Price, D. D., & Barrell, J. J. (2012). Inner Experiences and Neuroscience. Merging the two perspectives. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Price, D. D., Barrell, J. J., & Rainville, P. (2002). Integrating experiential-phenomenological methods and neuroscience to study neural mechanisms of pain and consciousness.

Thacker, M. A., & Moseley, G. L. (2012). First-person neuroscience and the understanding of pain. The Medical Journal of Australia, 196(6), 410–411.

Wortolowska, K. (2011). How neuroimaging can help us to visualise and quantify pain? European Journal of Pain, 5, 323–327.

<span class=”Z3988″ title=”ctx_ver=Z39.88-2004&rft_val_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Ajournal&;bpr3.tags=Health%2Cpain%2C+chronic+pain%2C+qualitative+research%2C+phenomenology%2C+philosophy%2C+psychology%2C+neuroscience%2C+pain+medicine”>Simon van Rysewyk (2014). Towards raising awareness of qualitative pain research <span style=”font-style: italic;”></span></span&gt;

Philosophical Thesis  Type Identity
Realism – Pain is real. Yes No
Materialism – Pain is neurophysiological. Yes Yes
Minimal Reductionism – Pain is nothing more than neurophysiological mechanism. Yes Yes
Identity – Pain is identical to a
neurophysiological mechanism.
Yes No
Naturalistic – Philosophies of pain are both metaphysical and scientific theories. Yes Yes
Theoretical – Metaphysical theories of pain can
be assessed according to their theoretical virtues (e.g., simplicity), and competing empirical predictions.
Yes Yes


Polger, T. W. (2011). Are sensations still brain processes? Philosophical Psychology, 24(1), 1-21.


The personal experience of pain produces a reliable effect on facial behavior in humans and in nonhuman mammals. Why should pain have a face? What is it for? I will attempt to head towards answering this question by invoking a theoretical framework: polyvagal theory (Porges, 2001, 2006).

1 Polyvagal Theory

According to polyvagal theory (Porges, 2001, 2006), evolution of neural control within the autonomic nervous system (ANS) has tracked three stages, each revealing a specific behavior, and a specific function:

In the first stage, the ancient unmyelinated visceral vagus nerve that enables digestion could respond to danger and pain only by reducing metabolic output and producing immobilization behaviors.

In the second stage, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) made it possible to increase metabolic activity and inhibit the visceral vagus nerve, thus allowing fight/flight behaviors following perceived threat or pain.

The third stage, which is uniquely mammalian, involves a myelinated vagus that can rapidly control cardiac and bronchi output to enable spontaneous interaction (i.e., engagement or disengagement) with the environment. The interaction of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) with the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, nervous and immune systems change to maximize response to stressors such as nociception. During nociception, the ANS operates together with nervous, endocrine and immune systems to produce stress (Chapman et al. 2008; Porges, 2001, 2006). In terms of polyvagal theory, pain facial expression is a dynamic autonomic response caused by noxious signaling. In terms of polyvagal-type identity mechanistic theory pain facial expression is a type of behavior that is identical to a type of neurophysiological mechanism; namely, the phylogenetically recent brain-heart-face mechanism.

The expansion of cortex in the third stage increased innervation and neural control of the mammalian face: upper face innervation is bilateral and arises from the supplementary motor area (M2) and the rostral cingulate motor area (M3). Lower face innervation is contralateral and arises from primary motor cortex (M1), ventral lateral premotor cortex, and the caudal cingulate motor cortex (M4) (Morecraft et al. 2004). Human pain facial movements of the eyebrows and upper lip are type identical with negative emotional aspects of pain and activation of M1, M2, M3, whereas facial movements around the eyes are type identical with somatosensory aspects of pain, and activation of M2 and M3 (Kunz et al. 2011). Thus, evolution of cranial anatomy enabled a highly integrated facial representation of the multidimensional experience of pain.

2 Why Pain Should Have a Face

In clinical and experimental settings, the pain face is observed to rapidly appear following noxious stimulation, and diminish concurrent with cessation of the noxious stimulus, or when analgesics are administered (e.g., Craig & Patrick, 1985). The brain-heart-face mechanism is an integrated system with both a somatomotor part controlling the striated facial muscles and a visceromotor part controlling the heart through a myelinated vagus nerve (Porges, 2001, 2006). When the vagal tone to the cardiac pacemaker is high, the myelinated vagus acts as a brake or restraint limiting heart rate. Rapid inhibition and disinhibition of vagal tone to the heart supports the rapid mobilization of facial muscles and formation of the pain face concurrent with pain onset. In humans and nonhuman mammals, the main vagal inhibitory pathways in the myelinated vagus originate in the nucleus ambiguus.

The vagal brake supports the low-metabolic requirements involved in the rapidly appearing and disappearing pain face. Withdrawal of the vagal brake is strongly correlated with the rapid appearance of the pain face; reinstatement of the vagal brake is strongly correlated with the rapid diminishing of the pain face. These correlations are not unique to pain facial expression; similar relationships hold with regard to the vagal brake and the timing and duration of aversive, but non-noxious emotional facial expressions (e.g., Pu et al. 2010), and positive emotional facial expressions (e.g., Kok & Fredrickson, 2010).

In terms of the function of rapid pain face onset and offset, the vagal brake makes it possible for the individual in pain to quickly disengage from source of wounding and pain, concurrent with the rapid appearance or diminishing of pain facial expression, which may offer temporary access to additional metabolic resources to aid healing, recovery and self-soothing behaviors, with likely involvement from care givers.

Concerning aid from others, the vagal brake reliably maps onto specific interaction types observed in mammalian pain events. In pain events comprising the individual in pain and care givers, mammalian behavior is typed according to interpersonal communication through facial expressions, vocalizations, head and hand gestures (Hadjistavropoulos et al. 2011; Porges, 2001, 2006; Williams, 2002). A relevant feature is the rapid ‘switching’ of temporary engagement to temporary disengagement behaviors between the individual in pain and care givers. This interaction type may involve care givers speaking to the one in pain, and then quickly switching to listening; for the one in pain, looking into the face of the care giver, and then quickly switching to vocalizing (Craig et al. 2011; Hadjistavropoulos et al. 2011; Porges, 2001, 2006; Williams, 2002). The brain-heart-face mechanism thus allows the one in pain and the care giver to get the timing right. Some philosophers and neuroscientists claim that evolutionary neurobehavioral solutions to timing problems such as these are implicated in the origin of empathy and ultimately consciousness itself (Churchland, 2002; Cole, 1998; Engen & Singer, 2012; van Rysewyk, 2011).

However, if pain is severe or chronic and the vagal brake is withdrawn (or dysfunctional), the concurrency of increased pain facial expression, cardiac output, and other mobilization behaviors (i.e., increased SNS and HPA output), means that, if care giving is to succeed in promoting healing and recovery, the care giver’s vagal brake must be dynamically reinstated. By applying their own vagal brake, care givers may regulate their own visceral distress and thereby succeed in allocating valuable metabolic resources to communicate safety to the one in pain (and themselves) through calming facial and head behaviors, eye gaze, and prosodic vocalizations (i.e., increasing the vagal brake decreases SNS and HPA output). Since the vagal brake of the person in pain has been provisionally withdrawn, the care giver is effectively an integrated external brain-heart-face mechanism (cf. Tantam, 2009, the ‘interbrain’).

Thus, the pain facial muscles function as neural timekeepers detecting and expressing features of safety and danger that cue the one in pain to quickly disengage from the source of wounding and pain, simultaneous with the rapid appearance or attenuation of pain facial activity, and also cue others who can help.


Chapman, C. R., Tuckett, R. P., & Song, C. W. (2008). Pain and stress in a systems perspective: reciprocal neural, endocrine, and immune interactions. Journal of Pain, 9(2), 122-145.

Churchland, P. S. (1989). Neurophilosophy: Toward a Unified Science of the Mind-Brain. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Cole, J. (1998) About face. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

Craig, K. D., & Patrick, C. J. (1985). Facial expression during induced pain. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 48(4), 1080-1091.

Craig, K. D., Prkachin, K. M., & Grunau, R. E. (2011). .The facial expression of pain. In D. C. Turk, & R. Melzack, Handbook of Pain Assessment, 2nd Edition (pp. 117-133). New York: The Guilford Press.

Engen, H. G., & Singer, T. (2012). Empathy circuits. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 23, 1-8.

Hadjistavropoulos, T., Craig, K. D., Duck, S., Cano, A., Goubert, L., Jackson, P. L., Mogil, J. S., Rainville, P., Sullivan, M. J. L., de C. Williams, Amanda C., Vervoort, T., & Fitzgerald, T. D. (2011). A biopsychosocial formulation of pain communication. Psychological Bulletin, 137(6), 910-939.

Kok, B. E., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2010). Upward spirals of the heart: Autonomic flexibility, as indexed by vagal tone, reciprocally and prospectively predicts positive emotions and social connectedness. Biological Psychology, 85(3), 432-436.

Kunz, M., Lautenbacher, S., LeBlanc, N., & Rainville, P. (2011). Are both the sensory and the affective dimensions of pain encoded in the face? Pain, 153(2), 350-358.

Morecraft, R. J., Stilwell-Morecraft, K. S., & Rossing, W. R. (2004). The Motor Cortex and Facial Expression: New Insights From Neuroscience. The Neurologist, 10(5), 235-249.

Porges, S. W. (2001). The polyvagal theory: phylogenetic substrates of a social nervous system. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 42(2), 123-146.

Porges, S. W. (2006). Emotion: An Evolutionary By‐Product of the Neural Regulation of the Autonomic Nervous System. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 807(1), 62-77.

Pu, J., Schmeichel, B. J., & Demaree, H. A. (2010). Cardiac vagal control predicts spontaneous regulation of negative emotional expression and subsequent cognitive performance. Biological Psychology, 84(3), 531-540.

van Rysewyk, S. (2011). Beyond faces: The relevance of Moebius Syndrome to emotion recognition and empathy. In: A. Freitas-Magalhães (Ed.), ‘Emotional Expression: The Brain and the Face’ (V. III, Second Series), University of Fernando Pessoa Press, Oporto: pp. 75-97.

Williams, A. C. D. C. (2002). Facial expression of pain: an evolutionary account. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 25(4), 439-455.

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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).


Anderson, J. (2005). The inflammatory reflex-introduction. Journal of Internal Medicine, 257(2), 122-125.

Apkarian, A. V., Bushnell, M. C., Treede, R. D., & Zubieta, J. K. (2005). Human brain mechanisms of pain perception and regulation in health and disease. European Journal of Pain, 9(4), 463-463.

Bie, B., Brown, D. L., & Naguib, M. (2011). Synaptic plasticity and pain aversion. European Journal of Pharmacology, 667(1), 26-31.

Burstein, R., Dado, R. J., Cliffer, K. D., & Giesler, G. J. (1991). Physiological characterization of spinohypothalamic tract neurons in the lumbar enlargement of rats. Journal of Neurophysiology, 66(1), 261-284.

Chapman, C. R., Tuckett, R. P., & Song, C. W. (2008). Pain and stress in a systems perspective: reciprocal neural, endocrine, and immune interactions. The Journal of Pain, 9(2), 122-145.

Craig, A. D. (2002). How do you feel? Interoception: the sense of the physiological condition of the body. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 3(8), 655-666.

Craig, A. D. (2003a). A new view of pain as a homeostatic emotion. Trends in Neurosciences, 26(6), 303-307.

Craig, A. D. (2003b). Pain mechanisms: labeled lines versus convergence in central processing. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 26, 1-30.

Eskandari, F., Webster, J. I., & Sternberg, E. M. (2003). Neural immune pathways and their connection to inflammatory diseases. Arthritis Research and Therapy, 5(6), 251-265.

IASP-Task-Force-On-Taxonomy (1994). IASP Pain Terminology. In H. Merskey & N. Bogduk (Eds.), Classification of Chronic Pain: Descriptions of Chronic Pain Syndromes and Definitions of Pain Terms (pp. 209-214). Seattle: IASP Press.

Liu, C. C., Shi, C. Q., Franaszczuk, P. J., Crone, N. E., Schretlen, D., Ohara, S., & Lenz, F. A. (2011). Painful laser stimuli induce directed functional interactions within and between the human amygdala and hippocampus. Neuroscience, 178, 208-217.

Lyon, P., Cohen, M., & Quintner, J. (2011). An Evolutionary Stress‐Response Hypothesis for Chronic Widespread Pain (Fibromyalgia Syndrome). Pain Medicine, 12(8), 1167-1178.

Neugebauer, V., Galhardo, V., Maione, S., & Mackey, S. C. (2009). Forebrain pain mechanisms. Brain Research Reviews, 60(1), 226.

Place, U. T. (1956). Is consciousness a brain process? British Journal of Psychology, 47, 44-50.

Price, D. D. (2000). Psychological and neural mechanisms of the affective dimension of pain. Science, 288(5472), 1769-1772.

van Rysewyk, S. (2013). Pain is Mechanism. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Tasmania.

Vierck, C. J., Green, M., & Yezierski, R. P. (2010). Pain as a stressor: effects of prior nociceptive stimulation on escape responding of rats to thermal stimulation. European Journal of Pain, 14(1), 11-16.

There is broad agreement among researchers that the minimal necessary neural pathways for pain are in the human fetus by 24 weeks gestation [1, for review]. However, some argue that the fetus can feel pain earlier than 24 weeks because pain can be enabled by subcortical brain structures [2,3,4,5]. Other researchers argue that the fetus cannot feel pain at any stage of gestation because the fetus is sustained in a state of unconsciousness [6]. Finally, others argue that the fetus cannot feel pain at any stage because the fetus lacks the conceptual postnatal development necessary for pain [7,8,9]. If a behavioral and neural reaction to a noxious stimulus is considered sufficient for pain then pain is possible from 24 weeks and probably much earlier. If a conceptual subjectivity is considered necessary for pain, however, then pain is not possible at any gestational age. According to [1], much of the disagreement concerning fetal pain rests on the understanding of key terms such as ‘wakefulness’, ‘conscious’ and ‘pain’.

A motivation for thinking conceptual subjectivity is necessary for pain is the idea that subjective experiences such as pain cannot be reduced to or identified with the objective features of the brain [7,8,9]. All pains are personal experiences and therefore entirely subjective; all brain states are physical events and therefore entirely objective. There is a fundamental divergence between pain and the brain. Thus, pain cannot be in the brain. The basic argument:

1. Pain experiences are subjective.

2. Brain events are objective.

Therefore, since pain experiences and brain events fundamentally diverge,

3. Pain experiences are not identical to brain events.

Is this a good argument? Let’s examine its first premise – ‘pain experiences are subjective.’ On a reasonable interpretation of its meaning, to state that ‘pain experiences are subjective’ is to state that pain experiences are knowable by introspection. However, since brain events are not knowable by introspection, pain experiences cannot be identical to brain events. Here is the argument:

1. Pain experiences are knowable to me by introspection.

2. Brain events are not knowable to me by introspection.

Therefore, since pain experiences and brain events fundamentally diverge,

3. My pain experiences are not identical to any of my brain events.

Once the argument is represented in this form, it is clear that it is fallacious. This can be clearly observed if we compare the argument with the following example:

1. Ibuprofen is known to me to relieve pain.

2. Iso-butyl-propanoic-phenolic acid is not known by me to relieve pain.

Therefore, since ibuprofen and iso-butyl-propanoic-phenolic acid fundamentally diverge,

3. Ibuprofen cannot be identical to iso-butyl-propanoic-phenolic acid.

The premises in the example are true, but the conclusion is known to be false. The argument is fallacious because the core idea of the argument – ‘fundamental divergence’ – makes an erroneous assumption; namely, it assumes that a thing must be known by somebody. But the property ‘being known by somebody’ is not a necessary feature of any thing, much less a property that might establish its identity or non-identity with some thing otherwise known. The truth of the premises may be due to nothing else but my ignorance of what turns out to be identical with what. These considerations challenge the assumed epistemology in the conceptual subjectivity view of pain.

They also challenge the related claim made by proponents of conceptual subjectivity that any description of a pain given in objective scientific terms will necessarily always exclude the personal experience of that pain [7,8,9]. The argument made here is by now familiar: since descriptions of pain in personal subjective terms are different from scientific descriptions of pain, it follows that a pain and its private subjectivity cannot be identical with a brain event and its public objectivity. Only persons can feel pain – brain cells and protein channels can’t. Clearly, the argument begs the issue in question: whether or not the subjective features of a pain I personally experience are identical with some objective features of my brain that might be discovered by neuroscience is precisely the question at issue [10,11].

Besides, in order to understand a scientific explanation of pain, neuroscience does not require of a person that he both understands the explanation and feels pain as a condition of understanding. Neuroscience aims to explain pain, that is its main purpose. Too much is demanded of neuroscience if, in addition to formulating an explanation of pain, it is meant to re-create pain in somebody as a requirement of understanding [10,11]. This expectation is therefore much too strong.


[1] Derbyshire SWG, Raja A. (2011). On the development of painful experience.Journal of Consciousness Studies18, 9–10.

[2] Anand KJ, Hickey PR. (1987). Pain and its effects in the human neonate and fetus. New England Journal of Medicine, 317(21), 1321–1329.

[3] Anand KJ. (2007). Consciousness, cortical function, and pain perception in nonverbal humans. Behavioral and Brain Sciences30(1), 82–83.

[4] Lowery CL, Hardman MP, Manning N, Clancy B, Whit Hall R, Anand KJS. (2007). Neurodevelopmental changes of fetal pain. In Seminars in perinatology, 31(5), 275–282.

[5] Merker B. (2007). Consciousness without a cerebral cortex, a challenge
for neuroscience and medicine. Target article with peer commentary and author’s response. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 30, 63–134.

[6] Mellor DJ, Diesch TJ, Gunn AJ, Bennet L. (2005). The importance of ‘awareness’ for understanding fetal pain. Brain research reviews49(3), 455-471.

[7] Derbyshire SWG. (2012). Fetal analgesia: where are we now? Future Neurology7(4), 367-369.

[8] Derbyshire SWG. (2006). Controversy: Can fetuses feel pain? BMJ: British Medical Journal332(7546), 909.

[9] Szawarski Z. (1996). Do fetuses feel pain? Probably no pain in the absence of “self”. BMJ: British Medical Journal313(7060), 796–797. 

[10] Churchland PS. (2002). Brain-wise: V: Studies in Neurophilosophy. MIT press.

[11] van Rysewyk S. (2013). Pain is Mechanism. PhD Dissertation, University of Tasmania.

Here, I briefly respond to Robinson, Staud and Price6 concerning what constitutes the ‘neural signature’ of pain (p. 325), note a logical mistake in their article, and highlight a reason why explaining pain is difficult. It is probable that conscious pain may be subserved by an unconscious physical base with a specific neurophysiological signature. Explaining pain in this direct way aims first to describe the base as a correlate of pain, then ultimately to achieve a reductive neurophysiological explanation of pain. Multiple evidential lines demonstrate that the neurophysiological base of pain need not be limited to one physical location, as Robinson, Staud and Price rightly note (p. 325). Since the hypothetical pain base is probably distributed, and therefore is more akin to the immune system than the liver, it is mistaken to expect that if it is not confined to a single neural region, or a single pattern of functional interaction, then there cannot be a physical signature of pain, as Robinson, Staud and Price appear to think (p. 325). Instead of a region-based view of the hypothetical pain base, it may be more accurate to think of it as a distributed mechanism.5, 8

The mechanism of pain could involve any number of neurophysiological systems (nervous, endocrine, immune), or reciprocal interactions between them, or any number of neurophysiological levels (pathway, network, single cell, molecular), or reciprocal interactions between them.1, 7, 8 The probability of a distributed mechanism, combined with the open-ended probability concerning the systems and level at which the mechanism exists, explains why current hypotheses and theories of pain in the literature, including those made in the article by Robinson, Staud and Price, are relatively unconstrained. However, the absence of constraints is not indicative of the likely truth of Cartesian dualism, the futility of searching for neurophysiological pain correlates, or the unreliability of verbal pain self-report. Rather, it indicates that pain science has much to do.

Neurophysiological mechanism and pain experiences can be correlated for a variety of reasons: the mechanism is part of the cause of pain; the mechanism is part of the effect of pain; the mechanism indirectly parallels pain; the mechanism is what pain can be identified with.2, 8 Discovering the neurophysiological signature of pain requires the identification of some neurophysiological mechanism with pain. The correlation of mechanism x with pain is informative because x may be the one for identifying pain. Correspondingly, mechanism y that does not correlate with pain indicates that y may not be the one. If there is a pain mechanism with a neurophysiological signature identifiable with pain experiences, the scientific and clinical benefits could be huge. Thus, investigating pain directly is worth a try.

Now, it is quite possible that a scientist may be looking at an instance of the pain signature without comprehending that it is an instance. This will occur if the physical base of pain does not possess an identifying property that is obvious to naïve researchers, but is comprehensible only through the availability of a more complete general theory of brain function.2, 3, 4, 8 The limitations in explaining pain are not simply technological. After all, how would a person know, independently of Antoine Lavoisier’s studies on oxygen, that metabolizing, burning and rusting are identical with the same mechanism, but that lightning and sunlight are not? Thus, Robinson, Staud and Price are right in asserting that it is misconceived to replace pain ratings with neuroimaging data, especially at this early stage of pain investigations.


Chapman CR, Tuckett RP, & Song CW: Pain and stress in a systems perspective: reciprocal neural, endocrine, and immune interactions. J Pain 9: 122-145, 2008.

Churchland PS: A neurophilosophical slant on consciousness research. Progress in brain research 149: 285-293, 2005.

Frith CD, Perry R, Lumer E: The neural correlates of conscious experience: an experimental framework. Trends in Cognitive Science 3: 105-114, 1999.

Northoff, G: Philosophy of the brain: The brain problem (Vol. 52). Amsterdam, John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2004.

Northoff, G: Region-Based Approach versus Mechanism-Based Approach to the Brain. Neuropsychoanalysis: An Interdisciplinary Journal for Psychoanalysis and the Neurosciences 12: 167-170, 2010.

Robinson ME, Staud R, & Price DD: Pain Measurement and Brain Activity: Will Neuroimages Replace Pain Ratings? J Pain 14: 323-327, 2013.

Tracey I, Mantyh PW: The Cerebral Signature for Pain Perception and Its Modulation. Neuron 55: 377-391, 2007.

van Rysewyk S: Pain is Mechanism. PhD Thesis, University of Tasmania, 2013.

Variations in response to pain have been reported in clinical settings (e.g., Bates et al. 1996; Cherkin et al. 1994; Jensen et al. 1986; Unruh, 1996; Wormslev et al. 1994). Patients with similar types and degrees of wounds vary from showing no pain to showing severe and disabling pain. Many chronic pain patients show disabling chronic pain despite showing no observable wound. Other patients show severe wounds but do not show pain. Why is it that two persons with identical lesions do not show the same pain or no pain at all? Why are all pain patients unique?

I propose that mind-brain identity theory may offer an answer to this difficult question. There are two main versions of identity theory: type and token identity. A sample type identical property is to identify “Being in pain” (X) with “Being the operation of the nervous-endocrine-immune mechanism” (Y) (i.e., X iff Y) (Chapman et al. 2008; van Rysewyk, 2013). For any person in pain the nervous-endocrine-immune mechanism (NEIM) must be active, and when NEIM is active in a person, he or she is in pain. Thus, type identity theory strongly limits the pattern of covariation across persons. According to token identity theory, for a person in mental state X at time t, X is identical to some neurophysiological state Y. However, in the same person at time t1, the same mental state X may be identical to a different neurophysiological state Y2. Token identity theory doesn’t limit the pattern of covariation across persons; it only claims that, at any given time, some mind-brain identity must be true.

In response to the topic question, I propose a hybrid version of identity theory – ‘type-token mind-brain identity theory’. Accordingly, for every person, there is a type identity between a mental state X and some neurophysiological state Y. So, when I am in pain, I am in NEIM state Y (and vice versa), but this NEIM state Y may be quite different across persons. Type-token identity theory therefore proposes a type identity model at the level of every person (i.e., it may vary across persons). A type-token identity theory implies that group-level type identities (i.e., type-type) cannot fully explain the pattern of covariation in pain responses across persons. Measuring changes of a pattern of psychological and neurophysiological indicators over time may then support a unidimensional model of chronic pain for each pain patient. Thus, being in chronic pain for me is identical with a specific pattern of NEIM activity (Chapman et al. 2008; van Rysewyk, 2013), but for a different patient, the same state of pain may be identical to a different pattern of NEIM activity. In preventing and alleviating chronic pain, it is therefore essential to best fit the intervention to the type-token pain identity profile of the patient.


Bates, M. S., Edwards, W. T., & Anderson, K. O. (1993). Ethnocultural influences on variation in chronic pain perception. Pain, 52(1), 101-112.

Chapman, C. R., Tuckett, R. P., & Song, C. W. (2008). Pain and stress in a systems perspective: reciprocal neural, endocrine, and immune interactions. Journal of Pain 9: 122-145.

Cherkin, D. C., Deyo, R. A., Wheeler, K., & Ciol, M. A. (1994). Physician variation in diagnostic testing for low back pain. Who you see is what you get. Arthritis & Rheumatism, 37(1), 15-22.

Jensen, M. P., Karoly, P., & Braver, S. (1986). The measurement of clinical pain intensity: a comparison of six methods. Pain, 27(1), 117-126.

Unruh, A. M. (1996). Gender variations in clinical pain experience. Pain, 65(2), 123-167.

van Rysewyk, S. (2013). Pain is Mechanism. Unpublished PhD Thesis. University of Tasmania.

Wormslev, M., Juul, A. M., Marques, B., Minck, H., Bentzen, L., & Hansen, T. M. (1994). Clinical examination of pelvic insufficiency during pregnancy: an evaluation of the interobserver variation, the relation between clinical signs and pain and the relation between clinical signs and physical disability. Scandinavian journal of rheumatology, 23(2), 96-102.

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Simon van Rysewyk

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