Human dignity, Personal Development, Stories from life

The useful, unpleasantness of pain and the need for artificial nerves

How many of you think that pain is one of the best things in life; raise your hands? I’ve asked this question many times to groups I’ve been lecturing to or teaching. Invariably none (or at most very few odd balls) raise their hands. Why? Because, well, pain hurts, pain is painful, pain sucks! Nobody wants pain. Wouldn’t life be better off without the sensation of pain?

I think not. In fact, I think that without the sensation of pain we would all injure ourselves more regularly than we already do, develop debilitating infections, suffer numerous amputations, live less fulfilling lives and eventually die much younger than we otherwise would. But, don’t just take my word for it. I stumbled upon this idea after reading about Dr. Paul Brand, a pioneer in the research and treatment of people suffering from Hansen’s disease, more popularly known as Leprosy. If you were to picture in your mind a person suffering from Leprosy, you would most likely picture someone who was missing eyebrows and eyelids or perhaps fingers or toes, or some other deformity of the extremities.

When Dr. Brand went to India to work at a hospital, the prevailing theory about Leprosy was that it was a disease that directly attacked and destroyed human flesh. What Dr. Brand discovered was that this is not the case. Rather, Leprosy acts like an anesthetic. Lepers begin to lose the sensation of pain and thereby lose the ability to avoid or cease activities that damaged themselves. Dr. Brand describes the genesis of this theory as stemming from observing Lepers at everyday tasks. One particular episode made a lasting impression on him. One day Dr. Brand tried to open a lock, but the key wouldn’t turn. A young boy asked the doctor if he could help then proceeded to turn the key without a problem and open the lock. Dr. Brand was shocked. How could this thin, young child be strong enough to turn the key when he himself could not? Then Dr. Brand noticed that there was blood dripping from the boy’s hand. On closer inspection the doctor saw that the boy had cut himself to the bone, yet felt nothing.

Without the ability to sense pain, Lepers regularly engage in activities that harm themselves. Think about it. How many times have you swept a floor or raked leaves or turned a screwdriver and felt a growing irritation that gradually becomes quite painful? Your natural reaction would be to adjust your grip in order to remove the irritation and thus avoid a potential greater injury than a simple blister. Or you might be proactive, having learned from previous experiences, and put on a pair of gloves before engaging in these activities. A healthy body recognizes pain and takes appropriate action to avoid or eliminate pain before it becomes too much. Lepers don’t do this. Their bodies are no longer healthy and thus don’t react to pain stimuli appropriately.

Dr. Brand wanted to help Lepers and, therefore, put together a team of engineers and bio-chemists in order to create artificial nerves. The team was able to design gloves that had electrodes attached to them that were able to register pressure. Wires were connected to a hearing aid that produced a pleasant hum until the pressure reached a certain level, that in people with normal sensitivity would indicate pain. Then the nice hum would become an increasingly irritating buzz. Also attached to the gloves was a system that caused the lights in the room to blink annoyingly. Patients were then give menial tasks like sweeping, raking or turning screwdrivers. Unfortunately, the patients became so preoccupied with completing their tasks that they ignored the uncomfortable sounds and lights. They did this knowing full well that they were hurting themselves.

The team then tried more drastic measures adding a mechanism whereby the patients would receive an electric shock to their bodies (where there were still pain receptors) when the pressure exceeded a certain level. Nevertheless, the Lepers simply disconnected the shock mechanism and continued the work they were assigned. An unhealthy body does not recognize pain and thereby continues to engage in activities that damage it.

Pain is a gift that allows us to live healthy, long lives.

Now, I could end this post here, but I’d like to propose that this simple model of how the body works (or doesn’t as the case may be) could also be applied to our common humanity.

A motto for the abolitionist movement (see my post of 22 May – ) was “Am I not a man and a brother.” The idea was that we are all part of one family, connected in some way. What affects my brother or sister affects me. This would mean that when my brother or sister is hurting something should be done to help alleviate the pain and suffering. If humanity were a healthy body, that would be the case, but something is wrong with our collective body and we are not reacting appropriately. We are not removing the pain nor working at healing the wounds; at least not in an adequate or sufficient manner. Our collective artificial nervous system (television, radio, newspapers and magazines and the internet with its assorted tools for conveying information) provides us with the stimuli we need to do more, but like the Lepers in Dr. Brands study we casually ignore or disconnect ourselves from the discomfort.

In order for all of us to thrive and live longer more fulfilling lives, shouldn’t we all strive to be more sensitive and more responsive to the pains of others?


2 thoughts on “The useful, unpleasantness of pain and the need for artificial nerves

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