No Pain Much Gain?

Just think: Suppose I had a condition called “congenital insensitivity to pain.”  This means I could slice my way through mosquito-infested swamps and not feel insect bites. This means I could go on a Polar Bear Plunge as easily as taking a dip in a heated pool and look heroic with nobody the wiser, and romp about in extreme heat without feeling like I was wrapped in cellophane. Best of all, I could impress my dentist by being unfazed by any procedure and brag about not needing Novocaine. “That? Oh that’s nothing. You should see me on the operating table.”  Or  I could consider a boxing career…

Actually this condition is no joke. Not experiencing the warning signs of pain makes serious injury quite certain. But even if in the future I was fitted with artificial sensors for hot and cold and pain so that I would react in time not to be injured, would I still feel deprived in some fashion? Would I be alone in my lack of pain, the way the android  Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation  feels like he is missing out on something by not having emotions, painful as well as pleasant? Setting aside an extreme case such as intractable pain, if I had the choice, would I opt to have this condition?

I am not sure because I do not know how it would shape my personality and assumptions. And if it happened at birth, I might have become insensitive not just to my own pain, but that of others. Poof! That would have derailed me from a chaplaincy career faster than saying “Clinical Pastoral Education.” If you could have congenital insensitivity to pain starting now, how do you think it would  influence your outlook?  What do you think it would be like?

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6 thoughts on “No Pain Much Gain?

  1. Krista Lai says:

    Interesting… do we need to be able to feel pain ourselves to have compassion for the pain of others? That would make sense. I read something the other day (don’t remember the details) about how everyone feels the same amount of physical pain (with the exception of those with the congenital condition you mentioned) it’s just that we all handle it differently psychologically. I wondered how on earth they were able to determine that was the case. Interesting things to think about!

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    • As far as I understand it, it is not true that everyone feels the same amount of physical pain.I think people have different “pain thresholds.” For example, I tend to feel something is too hot to cut, like pizza just out of the oven, but when my husband goes to slice it because I can’t, he says he hardly feels anything. As far as psychological factors, pain is a very complex matter, involving our experiences with it in the past. Since we cannot literally feel someone else’s experiences with pain, in the context of my work with patients, whatever the patient reports is taken as real to that patient.

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  2. I think I would take the risk, Karen, and try to remember how to be careful – sharp knives, scalding water etc. etc. Well, at least you were not derailed from a chaplaincy career so I bet your clientele, past and present, feel grateful.

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    • Perhaps the emotional pain from the resultant confusion for yourself and others would not be worth the trade off, not to mention jeopardizing our empathy for the pain of others.

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  3. Consuelo Beck Sague says:

    It would be too terrifying. I’d never do it. Ability to feel pain has a clear survival advantage. It’s an autosomal recessive. It’s even terrifying to read the accounts of parents who have kids with CIPA. http://www.nbcnews.com/id/6379795/ns/health-childrens_health/t/rare-disease-makes-girl-unable-feel-pain/#.WRYuJVUrKUl. Back when I was still very wet behind the ears, 1977, I was in a village with some “medical mission” folks, and I examined this little boy who had injured his foot with a machete (don’t even ask WHY would a 6-year-old be working with a machete…). The parents had filed the gash with some substance, and the “dressing” was all stuck with blood and pus to the injury. As I was gingerly taking it off, he was playing with my stethoscope, my hair ornament, his mom’s earrings. When I blurted “does it hurt?”, his father said “really, nothing hurts him. He’s like that. He didn’t notice when he hurts himself”. Turned out he had Hansen’s (leprosy). Not CIPA. Interestingly, cool research (“Can we share a pain we never felt? Neural correlates of empathy in patients with congenital insensitivity to pain.” full-text online at no cost) suggests that it IS possible for CIP patients to empathize… Rabbi Karen… I could read your stuff ALL DAY LONG. You have such interesting thoughts.

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