Anecdotal uncertainty of pain

My experience of pain seems to be somewhat different from that of other people. For instance, for much of the day I wrote this I thought I was probably in pain, though I was unsure exactly where, or how bad it was, or if it was really pain instead of something else. To be clear, it was still unpleasant and fairly distracting.

Sometimes I feel like everything is terrible for five minutes or so before figuring out that the problem is that I’m in physical pain. I even explicitly wonder whether the problem is pain, and decide probably not, before later realizing I was wrong. In such cases I infer that I was in pain all along because it feels more like a picture emerging after staring at a bunch of dots for long enough, rather than something in the world changing. Also, I don’t have any other good explanation for what was so bad earlier.

I point this out because I think the usual folk theory of pain says that pain is a kind of direct experience that you can’t really be confused about. If you don’t know if you are in pain, you aren’t. Pain is a conscious experience, so being in pain implies being aware that you are in pain. Also knowing what the pain is like. I think I kind of assumed something like this until I paid more attention to my own experiences, or until my own experiences became more incomprehensible on this model. I don’t have a well worked out alternative model (maybe others do), but I expect it should the possibility of being consciously confused about basically everything.

I’m also curious about whether I am especially unusual in this regard, or just tend to hear from people who are surprised by this. Are you ever unsure whether you are in pain? Are you ever unsure about its characteristics?

11 responses to “Anecdotal uncertainty of pain

  1. I am pretty sure that whenever something hurts, I am definitely aware of it and can localize it in my body.

  2. There is a correlation between (1) having chronic hard-to-treat pain and (2) the amount of time spent about thinking about one’s pain and one’s conscious experience of it. Although much of this causality probably flows from (1) to (2), or is sourced by a third confounding factor, I worry that more of (2) increases (1) rather than helping someone ameliorate (1).

    • Yeah, there’s a theory that chronic pain makes the brain more, not less, responsive to pain signals; whatever kinds of signals the brain gets a lot of are presumed to be important, so a person in pain a lot gets “better” at feeling pain.

  3. There are times I don’t notice I’m in pain, but I can’t recall ever consciously wondering whether I’m in pain. Once the issue occurs to me, the answer seems obvious.

    Feeling like everything is awful, but having to think for a while before realizing it’s due to physical pain, is imaginable to me, though it seems unlikely to happen to me personally. Pain is usually quite attention-grabbing.

  4. My experience of pain depends a lot on my level of attention to the pain.
    I have also noticed working out (lifting weights), helps out a lot. I think there are two benefits. One benefit is endorphins, and whatever other acute physiological effects that directy reduce pain. The other is basically building in more capacity to deal with the pain. If you’ve got an elephant in the room, and you can’t get rid of the elephant, maybe you can get a bigger room.

  5. That sounds kind of weird… Pain that doesn’t come to my awareness generally doesn’t seem to affect me at all, although once it has come to my awareness it’s often hard to get it out again.

  6. Pingback: Backwards and in feels | Compass Rose

  7. If someone said “I feel like shit today and I don’t know why” I’d simulate something pretty close to what you described. Are you sure it isn’t just a difference in usage of the word “pain”?

  8. Pain to me is immediate and direct, slicing myself with a knife is like petting something soft, or feeling something rough. Pain can occasionally be dull, like the perception that you’re in a mildly hot or cold room, but usually it is not. I can experience pain directly and immediately by itching myself with my nails. I’ve rarely felt deep and hard to identify pains in my stomach or muscles that occur inconsistently, which is why it’s difficult to identify them.

    I’ve occasionally not noticed I was in pain until I became aware that I was wounded, avoiding feeling pain up until that point. That’s the closest comparison I can make to this story.

  9. michealvassar

    I would usually claim that pain is the attentional draw to awareness of something, and suffering is the difference between the map and the best available interpretation of the incoming data, largely due to resisting pain out of map territory confusion. In that model, you are suffering because of lack of pain, not in pain workout awareness.

  10. If you decide you want to play around with exploring this stuff, I highly recommend Todd Hargrove’s book A Guide to Better Movement ( – turns out pain is complicated, and he does a pretty good job of walking through some of what we know right now, as well as suggesting concrete body-mapping exercises to get firsthand experiential data.


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