Pain Is A Subjective Thing, Or Is It? | Connecticut Public Radio

Pain Is A Subjective Thing, Or Is It?

Feb 27, 2019

You have pain that wakes you up at night and distracts you during the day. You go to the doctor, who asks you to grade your pain on a scale of 1-10. The doctor can't find anything wrong with you; it may be stress or anxiety or that you need more exercise or sleep. You're confused. You feel pain but nothing seems to be wrong. Does this sound familiar?

The CDC reports that almost twenty percent of adults in America live with chronic pain that's severe enough to interfere with their life and work. Chronic pain is the kind of pain that lingers after an injury has healed or exists in the absence of injury, like that back pain that keeps you up at night.  

Pain is a subjective thing that is shaped by culture, environment and genetics. Doctors have limited ways to understand the pain of another beyond asking one to grade its intensity on a scale from one to ten or find a word that best describes it. Often, if a doctor can't diagnose a specific cause for pain, they don't understand how it can exist.

Yet, it does exist and researchers are trying to prove it by scanning the brains of thousands of people, healthy and sick, to find a neural and objective map of pain: how the brain reliably creates perceptions of pain. 

Also this hour:  "Man on Fire Syndrome" results in severe pain and sensitivity on skin, hands, and feet. A Yale researcher studies this rare disease to find new treatments for chronic pain. 

Lastly, do fish feel pain? If so, should we adopt laws requiring the more humane killing of fish? Also, why is it so hard for us humans to accept that other species have the capacity to be feeling and conscious beings? 


  • Irene Tracey - Director, Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Oxford, U.K. She’s the co-founder of the Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Brain Centre.
  • Stephen Waxman - Professor of Neurology, Yale Medical School and Veterans Affairs Connecticut Medical Center. He’s the author of Chasing Men on Fire: The Story of the Search for a Pain Gene
  • Pamela Costa - Professor of Psychology at Tacoma Community College in Washington. She is a licensed clinical psychologist. 
  • Carl Safina - Professor for Nature and Humanity at Stony Brook University and runs the Safina Center. He is author of several books, including, Song for the Blue Ocean and most recently, Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel

David DesRoches and Chion Wolf contributed to this show.

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