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Old 05-25-2016, 04:14 AM
GlowingDarkness is offline
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Why is pain "painful" and pleasure the opposite?


I didn't think this would be objective enough for GQ so I decided to post it here.

Unless you have a syndrome which prevents pain from being transmitted to the brain, or damaged nerve endings, you can feel pain. And for 99% of people it doesn't feel good. You've probably never carried a hot bowl and said to yourself "I'll just walk for 10 more seconds, put it on the table and then deal with the pain" Once the pain becomes unbearable you'll let go instantly.

Evolutionary science says that pain is to help us prevent injury to ourselves. This is done when nerves pick up a strong stimulus , send it to the brain and the brain interprets this as pain.

But my question is why is this so uncomfortable? Why is it that no matter what age, gender, race, life circumstance, pain overrides the brains willpower? Could one train themselves to ignore pain?
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Old 05-25-2016, 04:19 AM
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Of course you can choose to ignore pain; otherwise there would be nobody with a tattoo.

But it's difficult, and the greater the pain the more the difficulty. But this is a feature, not a bug. In general, to be evolutionarily successful it helps if you don't ignore pain. And therefore evolution selects those who's experience of pain is difficult to ignore.
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Old 05-25-2016, 04:30 AM
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Originally Posted by GlowingDarkness View Post
I didn't think this would be objective enough for GQ so I decided to post it here.

Unless you have a syndrome which prevents pain from being transmitted to the brain, or damaged nerve endings, you can feel pain. And for 99% of people it doesn't feel good. You've probably never carried a hot bowl and said to yourself "I'll just walk for 10 more seconds, put it on the table and then deal with the pain" Once the pain becomes unbearable you'll let go instantly.

Evolutionary science says that pain is to help us prevent injury to ourselves. This is done when nerves pick up a strong stimulus , send it to the brain and the brain interprets this as pain.

But my question is why is this so uncomfortable? Why is it that no matter what age, gender, race, life circumstance, pain overrides the brains willpower? Could one train themselves to ignore pain?
1. To a certain extent you can ignore pain. Virtually every NFL athlete, marathon runner, etc. does it.

2. Pain is powerful because it has to be. If you are incurring severe damage to your body, that requires urgent action.
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Old 05-25-2016, 05:20 AM
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And if the purpose of pain is to tell us something is wrong, then why must it persist after we've gotten the message? Why do we need a constant reminder? Why must a toothache continue after we've made the dental appointment?

A related question is the intersection of pain and pleasure: people who eat extremely spicy foods, or people who stab or cut themselves or pick their scabs. And actual masochists, though masochism is much more nuanced than simply confusing pain and pleasure; to a masochist pain is contextual, involving intent.
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Old 05-25-2016, 05:27 AM
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That's not its purpose but its utility. "Purpose" implies thought, desire, the power to act. Pain, like gravity, just is.
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Old 05-25-2016, 05:55 AM
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It looks to me like you answered your own question as soon as you asked it. What's still confusing you?
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Old 05-25-2016, 06:16 AM
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And if the purpose of pain is to tell us something is wrong, then why must it persist after we've gotten the message? Why do we need a constant reminder? Why must a toothache continue after we've made the dental appointment?
Dental appointment making hasn't been part of evolutionary pressure for long enough, and there may be no path of evolution from our current system to one where toothache's vanish once you've made the appointment and only returns if you miss it.
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Old 05-25-2016, 07:35 AM
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But my question is why is this so uncomfortable?... Could one train themselves to ignore pain?
You answered the first question yourself. Here's an answer to the second.
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Old 05-25-2016, 08:53 AM
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One of the first things an athletic person has to do is learn the difference between pain that's telling you that you're damaging yourself and should stop, and pain that you work through because it's just there. You can ignore both, though, to your detriment - but maybe the team's gain!
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Old 05-25-2016, 11:09 AM
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One of the first things an athletic person has to do is learn the difference between pain that's telling you that you're damaging yourself and should stop, and pain that you work through because it's just there. You can ignore both, though, to your detriment - but maybe the team's gain!
The ever popular "Are you hurt or are you INJURED?"

I get migraines, sometimes badly enough that I start vomiting and wish for death. I can't sleep or eat or do much of anything, so I lay and zone out for a while. I am not asleep, time is passing and I am hyper aware of the pain, but I sort of exist within it. Hard to explain and it's less about ignoring the pain, more about yielding to it.

Last edited by Poysyn; 05-25-2016 at 11:13 AM.
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Old 05-25-2016, 01:54 PM
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I get migraine pain also and I do the same thing, a zen-like compartmentalizing of the pain.

If we didn't have pain no one would try to avoid dangerous things. Everyone would be intentionally or unintentionally destroying their numb little meat bags. Just putting your hand on a hot burner could get you killed if you didn't realize you were doing it until you had burned your hand off. Which could then lead to a painless infection that got into your blood.

Emotional pain is similar. We're designed to protect our kids lest me feel the pain of losing them. The same goes for family and community.

Pleasure is a reward system. Probably because without it we wouldn't ever have kids that we'll spend the rest of our lives worrying about. Lol Pleasure and pain go together as you can't have one without the other. If your trying to survive the wilderness and your hunger causes you no pain and the fish you ate gives you no reward, what is left?
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Old 05-25-2016, 05:03 PM
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That's not its purpose but its utility. "Purpose" implies thought, desire, the power to act. Pain, like gravity, just is.
Although you are technically correct, in ordinary language it's okay to use language like "purpose" and even "design" regarding evolutionary features. Stephen Jay Gould defended this, so long as it's non-academic and non-technical discussion.

Eyes are "made to see." Pain is "designed" to prevent us from doing various things.

So long as nobody takes this to actual "intelligent design," then meh. This isn't a university symposium.
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Old 05-25-2016, 05:33 PM
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Pain is just nature's way of telling you it doesn't give a damn how you feel.
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Old 05-25-2016, 05:59 PM
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And if the purpose of pain is to tell us something is wrong, then why must it persist after we've gotten the message? Why do we need a constant reminder? Why must a toothache continue after we've made the dental appointment?

Because you didn't listen to what the pain was telling you and probably damaged part of the body that the pain was trying to warn you not to damage. Nature doesn't know that in the long run, the dental work is preventing more damage to your teeth and face.

Evolution doesn't mean creating perfect machines. There is evolutionary advantage to having pain warn you about impending damage. Not so much with having the pain stop.

Last edited by msmith537; 05-25-2016 at 05:59 PM.
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Old 05-25-2016, 06:49 PM
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And if the purpose of pain is to tell us something is wrong, then why must it persist after we've gotten the message? Why do we need a constant reminder? Why must a toothache continue after we've made the dental appointment?

A related question is the intersection of pain and pleasure: people who eat extremely spicy foods, or people who stab or cut themselves or pick their scabs. And actual masochists, though masochism is much more nuanced than simply confusing pain and pleasure; to a masochist pain is contextual, involving intent.
For the first question, the pain persists because making an appointment with the dentist doesn't count as actually doing something about it. Getting the dental work done does count.

For the second question, the brain can be tricked into feeling one type of pain and lessening the other because it can't focus on both pains at the same time.
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Old 05-25-2016, 09:09 PM
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Originally Posted by Nava View Post
That's not its purpose but its utility. "Purpose" implies thought, desire, the power to act. Pain, like gravity, just is.
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Although you are technically correct, in ordinary language it's okay to use language like "purpose" and even "design" regarding evolutionary features. Stephen Jay Gould defended this, so long as it's non-academic and non-technical discussion.
I don't think Nava's claim is technically correct, I think it's wrong.

There's a confusion here between two distinct meanings of purpose.

(1) The reason something exists;

(2) An intention or objective, entailing thought, desire and the power to act.

I don't think anyone would claim that there's anything wrong with saying
The purpose of the heart is to pump blood
That's sense (1). It doesn't require a discussion of whether the heart came about through conscious design or otherwise to justify it.

Trinpopus' point about the anthropomorphization of evolution (more specifically natural selection) and the pitfalls therein only concerns sense (2), thus:

Natural selection designed an incredibly efficient heart
That's seems like a valid anthropomorphization.

The purpose of natural selection is to design progressively more efficient hearts with each generation
That's sense (2) of "purpose", and obviously this is mistaken, taking the anthropomorphization too far - natural section does not have intention or foresight.

Last edited by Riemann; 05-25-2016 at 09:11 PM.
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Old 05-25-2016, 09:35 PM
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Why is pain "painful"
I think maybe the core of the OP's question is:

Why is there a requirement for an unpleasant conscious subjective experience? Why not just hook up a direct link from the nerve endings that sense the potential damage to the motor functions that move us out of danger, without requiring a subjective unpleasant sensation? After all, simpler creatures without complex brains do work this way.

I think the answer is that it's better for our survival to have our sophisticated problem-solving brain sit in the middle, between sensation and motor action. The nervous system sends our brain a very strong signal that it needs to make a decision urgently, and to weight things heavily in favor of the "obvious" rectifying reaction - this weighting is achieved by the subjective "pain" experience - but to allow our brains to override the "obvious" rectifying action under complex extenuating circumstances. If you get a serious cut on your foot - strong signal to stop and rest, let it heal; but if a predator is nearby, override the pain, just run.

As for why pain lingers, that's more tricky. Perhaps again it's a question of weighting the brain's decision making correctly - perhaps we make better decisions when the persistent nagging pain "warns" the brain of the potential damage if the brain does decide to ignore the pain signal. But then perhaps it's just an unfortunate side effect of how the whole thing is wired up. Not everything is an adaptation.

Last edited by Riemann; 05-25-2016 at 09:39 PM.
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Old 05-25-2016, 10:28 PM
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The ever popular "Are you hurt or are you INJURED?"

I get migraines, sometimes badly enough that I start vomiting and wish for death. I can't sleep or eat or do much of anything, so I lay and zone out for a while. I am not asleep, time is passing and I am hyper aware of the pain, but I sort of exist within it. Hard to explain and it's less about ignoring the pain, more about yielding to it.
Yielding to it and accepting it, or ignoring it? My own "trick" is to go to bed, cover my eyes, and not move. But your triage nurse "Are you hurt or are you INJURED?" question is correct, as I'm never more than a few hours of shuteye away from health.

I've found that, at my job, doing a lousy job is less painful than lying at home, asleep. A crappy job with 0 expectations pays better.
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Old 05-25-2016, 11:33 PM
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Although you are technically correct, in ordinary language it's okay to use language like "purpose" and even "design" regarding evolutionary features. Stephen Jay Gould defended this, so long as it's non-academic and non-technical discussion.

Eyes are "made to see." Pain is "designed" to prevent us from doing various things.

So long as nobody takes this to actual "intelligent design," then meh. This isn't a university symposium.
Yes, but for pain to stop because you've already taken measures would require pain to be conscious that you've taken measures. Very often the problem with imprecise language is that even if we intellectually understand the precise meaning, the assumptions trip us, or that multiple meanings get mixed.

Last edited by Nava; 05-25-2016 at 11:38 PM.
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Old 05-25-2016, 11:37 PM
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Yes, but for pain to stop because you've already taken measures would require pain to be conscious that you've taken measures. Very often the problem with imprecise language is that even if we intellectually understand the precise meaning, the assumptions trip us.
Agreed...and agreed. Evolution isn't intelligent, and never came up with an "off switch" for pain, even though it would be in our best interests if there were one.

(Well, sorta. Nature arranged for us to pass out -- sometimes -- from really severe pain. Kind of an off switch. Doesn't always work...)
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Old 05-26-2016, 12:26 AM
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Yes, but for pain to stop because you've already taken measures would require pain to be conscious that you've taken measures.
This makes no sense, can you explain what you mean?
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Old 05-26-2016, 12:41 AM
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This makes no sense, can you explain what you mean?
Pain is "designed" to call attention to the cause of the pain, which is (generally) dangerous to us, and to encourage us to address that cause. But pain can't "know" that we have responded by, e.g., scheduling a doctor's appointment. Pain will only "know" that we have addressed the problem when we have actually addressed it, and not merely taken steps to address it (or have someone else address it) at a future date.

In other words, as long as there's an open wound in your flesh, you'll feel pain. The pain will be releived when the wound is treated, and eventually heals. It won't be releived when you notice the problem and start to take steps to seek treatment, because the pain has no way of "knowing" that you have done that, and the wound is still as bad (and as threatening) as it ever was.
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Old 05-26-2016, 12:49 AM
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I have thought about this quite a bit over the years and here is my view:

I think our brains are wired to seek pleasure signals and avoid pain signals. Pleasure feels good because our brain automatically tries to seek it and pain feels bad because we automatically try and avoid it.

I also think we ALWAYS do what our brain determines will maximise pleasure and minimise pain. So if one choice has a +10 rating for pleasure and another has a -9 rating for pain we will endure the pain but still be highly aware of it so that we might avoid it in the future. Or we might endure a torture of -10 rating because it is preferable to the -11 rating of betraying our loved ones.

The intensity of the pain signal is related to how urgent it is to avoid it. If you accidentally touched a hot stove your hand would normally jump back so quickly that you'd hardly even feel the pain signal. But if you chose to keep your hand there (maybe to get some pleasure from curiosity or avoid the pain of feeling like a wimp) you would become strongly aware that your brain has a pain signal that needs to be avoided as soon as possible.

Pleasure and pain signals can be automatically triggered by your body but can also be associated with memories and people can learn to feel pleasure or pain signals based on learnt things.

Last edited by JohnClay; 05-26-2016 at 12:52 AM.
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Old 05-26-2016, 01:08 AM
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Pain is a construct of your brain. That isn't to say it is always wholly imaginary, referencing nothing, but sometimes that is the case. Here are a couple of videos my doctor recommended when I got hurt a while back:

Why do things hurt?

What is chronic pain?
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Old 05-26-2016, 01:16 AM
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Yes, but for pain to stop because you've already taken measures would require pain to be conscious that you've taken measures..
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Pain is "designed" to call attention to the cause of the pain, which is (generally) dangerous to us, and to encourage us to address that cause. But pain can't "know" that we have responded by, e.g., scheduling a doctor's appointment. Pain will only "know" that we have addressed the problem when we have actually addressed it, and not merely taken steps to address it (or have someone else address it) at a future date.

In other words, as long as there's an open wound in your flesh, you'll feel pain. The pain will be releived when the wound is treated, and eventually heals. It won't be releived when you notice the problem and start to take steps to seek treatment, because the pain has no way of "knowing" that you have done that, and the wound is still as bad (and as threatening) as it ever was.
Thanks for the explanation - I see what Nava meant now.

But I don't agree. It's not necessary for our internal "pain processor" to become an independently self-aware conscious entity in order for us to have an arbitrarily sophisticated pain response. There is no reason in principle that our subjective pain level could not be much more complex, responding to internal mental states so that the pain fades dramatically in response in response to (say) an emotional state of "knowing that we have done all that we could possibly do", even if the physiological state has not yet changed. There's also no reason, in principle, that we could not evolve active conscious control of our pain level.

I can see good reasons why we did not in practice evolve this way, because "being in less pain" does not necessarily confer a survival advantage. Outside of sexy times, natural selection is not about having fun, it's about survival.

In fact, we do modify subjective pain levels dramatically when survival is at stake. When "fight or flight" is triggered, we do subjectively forget about pain.

Last edited by Riemann; 05-26-2016 at 01:20 AM.
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Old 05-26-2016, 01:55 AM
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. . . But I don't agree. It's not necessary for our internal "pain processor" to become an independently self-aware conscious entity in order for us to have an arbitrarily sophisticated pain response. . . .
Certainly not necessary, but it could be advantageous....in some circumstances. Deleterious in others. (And, as you noted, it is flexible, such as when someone is at an instant need to react to a threatening stimulus.)

Nature and evolution could not have known about surgery...but a natural form of anesthesia would have been somewhat of an advantage to survival. If such a function had arisen by chance, it might likely have been retained and even refined.

The same is true for quite a few other evolutionary features. For instance, it could be advantageous to be able to hold one's breath, without the involuntary reflex of gasping once the CO2 levels build too high. How many people have drowned, while almost having swum up to the surface after deep immersion? But evolution built us with that involuntary command, "Breathe, darn ya, breathe!" and we cannot overcome it, no matter what the need.
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Old 05-26-2016, 05:53 AM
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I've noticed over the years that my brain can deal with two simultaneous types of pleasure, but not two simultaneous types of pain. I can listen to music I love while eating food I love; but if I have a headache, then bang my thumb with a hammer, I stop noticing the headache. When I used to get migraines, I often thought of getting rid of the pain by banging my head against the wall.

And what about that intersection of pain and pleasure? In what way is the eating of super-spicy food different than someone who enjoys cutting himself?
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Old 05-26-2016, 05:58 AM
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It looks to me like you answered your own question as soon as you asked it. What's still confusing you?
---
Hahahaha thats exactly what im going to say
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Old 05-26-2016, 11:41 AM
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I don't understand the OP question -- Why are painful and pleasure the opposites?

One hurts, one feels good. Is that an insufficient answer?

A literal explanation -- pain and pleasure are two different words with two different meanings.

What subtleties am I missing here?
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Old 05-26-2016, 01:57 PM
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I don't understand the OP question -- Why are painful and pleasure the opposites?

One hurts, one feels good. Is that an insufficient answer?

A literal explanation -- pain and pleasure are two different words with two different meanings.

What subtleties am I missing here?
The OP is asking why the feeling that something has been or is about to be damaged is so extremely uncomfortable, instead of just a very significant tingling or something.
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Old 05-26-2016, 03:00 PM
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Daniel Goleman, author of "Emotional Intelligence" writes about the specific functions of the brain such at the hippocampus, thalumus and amygdala. How one part of the brain controls signals from the others and how neural pathways are reinforced. A lot is about controlling the emotions that nature bestowed upon us that no longer serve positive uses, but it gives a good insight into a lot of the ways the brain interprets pleasure and pain as well as many other things.

Highly recommended reading for anyone who's interested in self help with scientific data to back it up. The term, emotional intelligence, is tossed around way too much by people who don't really understand what it is.
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Old 05-26-2016, 03:03 PM
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The OP is asking why the feeling that something has been or is about to be damaged is so extremely uncomfortable, instead of just a very significant tingling or something.
Because the creatures that could ignore pain or only felt minor pain generally were less like to live long enough to reach reproductive age compared to the ones who felt debilitating pain.

A splinter could kill you before modern medicine.

Last edited by Wesley Clark; 05-26-2016 at 03:04 PM.
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Old 05-26-2016, 03:06 PM
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Nature and evolution could not have known about surgery...but a natural form of anesthesia would have been somewhat of an advantage to survival. If such a function had arisen by chance, it might likely have been retained and even refined.
We have that though, people can suppress pain in life or death situations. Only when the threat is passed do people feel pain.
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Old 05-26-2016, 03:47 PM
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Congenital Analgesia...not being able to feel pain, is a very very bad thing.
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Old 05-26-2016, 04:52 PM
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Congenital Analgesia...not being able to feel pain, is a very very bad thing.
Arguably sociopathy and antisocial personality disorder are the same thing for emotional pain. Sociopaths do not really feel emotional pain (anxiety, guilt, shame, fear, remorse, etc). The end result is that many of them end up alienating themselves from and being targeted for revenge by society.
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Old 05-26-2016, 06:38 PM
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Because the creatures that could ignore pain or only felt minor pain generally were less like to live long enough to reach reproductive age compared to the ones who felt debilitating pain.

A splinter could kill you before modern medicine.
That would only be true if the creature could identify the cause of the debilitating pain and actually do something to remedy the situation, before it killed him. Usually not the case.
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Old 05-26-2016, 08:33 PM
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That would only be true if the creature could identify the cause of the debilitating pain and actually do something to remedy the situation, before it killed him. Usually not the case.
Yes but a fear of pain will cause the organism to avoid dangerous situations in the first place. It will also cause it to work harder to escape when it finds itself in danger.

I forget the math, but I was reading a book on evolution that basically said if trait X only provides a 1% survival advantage, after Y generations there will be a 99.9% prevalence of the trait.

The advantage of intense pain in both avoiding trauma and escaping it once it is near is likely much higher than 1%. The fact that sometimes an appendix will burst, a tooth will get infected or a person will get giardia and they will suffer immensely while being able to do nothing about it is just a sad tradeoff that evolution didn't care about.
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Old 05-26-2016, 10:15 PM
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I've noticed over the years that my brain can deal with two simultaneous types of pleasure, but not two simultaneous types of pain. I can listen to music I love while eating food I love; but if I have a headache, then bang my thumb with a hammer, I stop noticing the headache. When I used to get migraines, I often thought of getting rid of the pain by banging my head against the wall.
Either it's just you, or there's some truth to women being better at multitasking because plenty of us have headaches (including migraines) and horrible cramps at the same time, both of which consciously hurt.
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