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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.


Dear Philosophers,

I invite you to complete a 5 minute survey to assess the status of the mind-brain identity theory in current professional philosophy. It is open to philosophy faculty members and philosophy graduate and undergraduate students.

In the survey, the mind-brain identity theory is represented as a list of 9 philosophical claims adapted with permission from Thomas W Polger’s paper ‘Are Sensations Still Brain Processes?’ (2011), and which correspond to claims philosopher Jack Smart defended over fifty years ago in his paper ‘Sensations are Brain Processes’ (1959).

In the survey, each claim in the list is a binary ‘yes/no’ question. There are 9 questions. I will publish the results on my webblog and in an article.

Please click here to take the survey, thank you!

Simon van Rysewyk

If mind-brain identity theory is correct, it has great potential to unify our theories of human nature and the universe.

Still, it is not obvious that mental states are identical to brain states. It is difficult to believe that they are one and the same thing.

Reductionism in identity theory causes hard feelings in some philosophers because they feel pressured to abandon their wiggle room, the almost imperceptible space between mind and world where philosophical imagination roams free.


Is mind the same as brain? Consider a pain. Pain is unpleasant, but nowhere in physical space. However, brain states all occur in physical space (the physical brain), and none of them are unpleasant. So pain cannot be identical to any brain-state. Which means mind is not the same as brain. Right?

It is true that what happens in the brain during pain is not itself unpleasant. But, a state of personal pain – a state of experiencing pain, which is always personal – is also not itself unpleasant, and based on neuroscientific evidence, does in fact occur in the brain, likely in insular and cingulate cortices (limbic system).

Pain is a certain state of experience, which we call ‘being in pain’, or ‘having a pain’. When I observe you in pain, I can use the same expressions to characterize your personal experience. So, the word ‘pain’ refers to an experience type, not an object type. A pain is not a weird object felt but not visually apprehended, but a sensory, emotional and cognitive experience, which is unpleasant, hurtful, surreal, burning, throbbing, typically accompanied by injury, and so on.

In migraine headache, being in pain is not located in the head, but a state of migraine is identical to a brain state. Pain is neither an object, nor a thing, but a personal event, and the language of pain may obscure this.

But I think it is correct to say that the painfulness of pain characterizes the appearance of a body-part or bodily portion; in the case of migraine, the apparent location of the migraine directs my attention to my actual head. Note that the phrase ‘appearance of a body-part/bodily portion’ is ambiguous because the phrase also applies to events of pain in body-parts when the apparent body-part referred to does not exist (e.g., phantom pains). Pain locations are qualitative locations.

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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