Monday, 4 August 2014

On Where Pain Is


"We must learn to suffer what we cannot evade; our life, like the harmony of the world, is composed of contrary things- of diverse tones, sweet and harsh, sharp and flat, sprightly and solemn: the musician who should only effect some of these, what would he be able to do? he must know how to make use of them all, and to mix them; and so we should mingle the goods and evils which are consubstantial with our life; our being cannot subsist without this mixture, and the one part is no less necessary to it than the other."
           Michel de Montaigne / Of Experience

I was recently diagnosed with the syndrome of transverse myelitis, which is an inflammation of the white matter (which is white because it is covered by a fatty sheath called myelin) in the spine. It can be diagnosed with an MRI, which makes the (in my case, tiny) region of inflammation visible. The symptoms of myelitis are sensory and motor problems, including muscle cramping, muscle weakness, and an interesting variety of different flavors of pain. There is no cure but the symptoms usually disappear by themselves after a few months. "Touch wood", as my mother would say.

My own symptoms came on suddenly and were of bewildering variety. They eventually stabilized around two primary symptoms: left leg weakness and pain in various places on my right side, especially the sole of right foot, extending (in what seems like an unnecessarily ignoble touch) especially into my right small toe. 

When I learned that that all this had been caused by a tiny speck of disorganized neural signalling, I was interested in the illusion that the pain that was caused by a lesion in my spine clearly felt like it was nearly a meter away, in my right foot. I began thinking about the question: What would we lose or gain if we said that the pain is actually in my spine, but it just feels like it is in my right foot?

One thing we lose is the generally inalienable right to ownership of our own phenomenology. If we cannot even tell where our own pain is, what are we?

One thing we gain, of course, is salvation of philosophical integrity. Typically a pain and the lesion that caused it are coincident in time and space. That is the whole point of the pain system.

We also gain a stark proof that pain is not even real, that it is ultimately just a signal running over an electrical line. Pain is being computed by a buggy program  that will tell you the pain is a metre away from the lesion, in a part of the body that is in fact entirely uninjured.

It is after all easier to ignore static on your phone line than a laceration of your flesh.

1 comment:

  1. Sometimes when we are suffering, we forget to analyze what really caused the pain. It’s sad to know that your illness has no cure, but I hope you’d find a way to cope with it in the long run. Thanks for this thought-provoking post, Chris!

    Agnes Lawson @ Pain Relief Experts