You Spend Most of Your Life Fighting and Avoiding Pain

Written by: Matthew Sabatine

Pain is a strange thing. Pain matters more than anything else conceivable. You can’t stop acting as though it is real. And you don’t know entirely why, despite how much you may try to rationalize it. Quite often you can’t bother to care about why as you mainly must be concerned with how to banish your pain. If you could act as though pain is unreal, you would not take offense to someone making light of your pain when you feel it very sharply and unstoppably. The presence of pain is especially demonstrated when it compels people to numb themselves with drugs and alcohol.

Pain is such a haunting specter that an estimated 139 million prescriptions for Vicodin, a central nervous system depressant, were made in 2010 alone. [1] The desperation for gaining remission of pain can become so intense that it can blind you to the long-term injuries incurred from trying too hard. Take, for instance, addiction to morphine, a drug meant to treat post-surgery pain and cancer-related pain, that is also said to produce a very euphoric dream-like state. [2] 

Pain is so undesirable that people are often likely to say they would rather die than feel it, hence when you develop a codependency on a drug, the freedom from pain may be prioritized over preventing an overdose. According to a story told by addiction medicine specialist, Mel Pohl M.D., a patient’s physical pain became so excruciating and her codependency for painkillers became so great, that whatever behaviors and choices resulted therefrom, caused abandonment from her friends and three adult children. [3] Of course, we won’t say that she wanted that. No one wants to be abandoned. She likely didn’t foresee it happening either. Since we are often predisposed to assume that emotional pain is less serious than physical pain, she had to choose what she thought was the lesser of two evils; she had to sacrifice her children and friends to continue medicating herself.

However, Google has plenty of articles claiming that emotional pain is worse than physical pain or should be treated just as seriously. Research has been suggesting that the circuitries for both psychological and physical pain are overlapping. Here, the anterior cingulate cortex and prefrontal cortex take center stage. [4] Metaphorically stating that you have a “broken heart” or “hurt feelings” can perhaps attest to this fact and these physical pain words used to describe an emotional state exist cross-culturally.

Perhaps we have always assumed that it is an overstatement to say that you feel hurt by the severance and hostility from others. We would also say that we feel hurt if our critical “need to belong” goes unfulfilled. Evidently, that is not an overstatement. As mammalian creatures, we were born comparatively undeveloped due to our inability to nurture ourselves without a caregiver. The time between being born and being an adult is such a protracted period of dependency. So, as these generations of dependency episodes abounded throughout the millions of years of evolution, the social attachment system had to borrow signals from the physical pain system to make survival alerts when social relationships are jeopardized.  As separation from a caregiver threatens survival, pain from social losses is an adaptive way to counteract them. [5]


Pain as it was discussed in the ancient days

Pain’s existence is so indisputable that all the world’s religions had to write many stories revolving around pain and the lifelong journey to preempt and minimize it.

The inexorable desire for pain minimization is illustrated well in the Holy Bible that tells a story about a man named Job who becomes covered head to toe with sores and loses his house, great livestock, servants, and ten children to plunderers and cataclysms. He questions how an omnipotent God would allow innocents to suffer and wicked people to prosper. I think the extent of his misery would exhaust any stalwart, as I can quote his saying, “Like a slave who longs for the shadow, and like a hireling who looks for his wages, so I am allotted months of emptiness, and nights of misery are apportioned to me.” Job also wishes that he was never born, a wish that is not alien to any of us who have ever experienced deep woe and anguish. [6] Humanity has been ruminating over this since the early days of the Jews, which is quite long ago, if the story of Job was definitely hand-written by the second century BCE and supposedly emanated from other very similar stories of the ancient Near East that discuss the gods afflicting a man of good repute. [13]

All the world’s traditions must recognize pain’s intertwinement with existence as an indelible truth of Being. Buddhism has done well at this.

Buddhism is said to date back to the 6th Century BCE and its Four Noble Truths are based on 1) dukkha: said to be translated as suffering, impermanence, stress, or dissatisfaction. 2) samudaya: said to be the origin or cause of suffering associated with craving and attachment. 3) nirhodha: Buddhists believe in the end of suffering achieved through nirvana, a state wherein suffering is unexperienced. 4) magga: the truth of the path leading to deliverance from suffering, namely, that we must have the right thoughts; the right morality, that is not having sensuous desires, ill-will, or cruelty; and right effort and right concentration. [7]


How stories help us better understand pain

Isn’t it strange that our subjective experiences with pain (e.g. the death of your mother/father, the loss of your first love, your dashed hopes and dreams) are more translatable and meaningful through a written drama or movie than a scientific description on physical reality? Poetry and music and stories about your mental experiences will always be a better tear-jerker than seeing fMRI measurements of your brain activity during those lived experiences. The subjective and personal elements of human conscious experience are so fundamental to human life that they can’t be converted to objective terms and then still carry the same level of profundity. Even the modern reductionist, materialist thinker must agree.

Hollywood is a multi-billion industry because they know all too well the exploitability of humans’ natural tendency to be mesmerized by drama and conflict displayed on a screen. Stories are such a powerful vehicle for arranging and conveying information. In our lives we have many questions and conflicts that must be dealt with, and a story line with a beginning, middle, and end makes the pieces of the puzzle more decipherable. As we are creatures of intention and action, we like to see things in concrete form. While we may not be able to accomplish and materialize our dreams and fantasies according to a desired timeline, we can still partly enjoy the pleasure and experience their “timeless miracles” by living vicariously through characters on a screen or in written word. It is through stories that we can learn about certain painful experiences without being directly impacted by them. [8]


A story about a painful event is more apt to persuade you about the facts than just simply stating them. Stories are felt in the body. Stories are a better instrument for control than a recitation of facts. Stories have a greater effect on neurochemical processes and behavior. [9]

Humans have a natural negativity bias. We tend to focus on what is bad. That focus is connected to the constant awareness to obviate danger and stories must always throw a spotlight on what is bad. A spotlight on threats and danger activates stress, a mechanism of nature to avoid predatory attacks. Then, attention and strength are heightened with the release of cortisol hormones from your hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal gland. Why do you always feel great intensity when menacing agents are looming so close to the main character or your favorite character of a story? And then when good triumphs over evil, your stress subsides, and a happy ending stimulates your reward system or your limbic system to dispense dopamine. The victory symbolizes how you would like to defeat all infirmities and ordeals in your life. [9]

2013 and 2015 research tested people’s emotion-identifying skills based on looking at letterboxed images after being “exposed to literary fiction and high-quality television.” Those who watched a movie scored higher in real-life empathy-building skills than those who just watched documentaries. These skills are very important when trying to solve real-world puzzles, plights, and problems.  [9]

How music helps us to heal and wrestle with pain

Music, as a force of nature, has similar profound effects on humans as do stories. Music has anxiolytic and analgesic effects that can make you feel like you have been transported to a different universe. Music’s anxiolytic, analgesic effects must have been realized by humanity ever since the ancient days, as can be seen in the Holy Bible’s story about David who played the lyre for King Saul to mollify his troubled self. The ancient Greeks found healing properties in music since they appointed their deity, Apollo, to rule over healing and music. And the Shamans used musical and rhythmic repetitions during their rituals to entrance their acolytes. [10]

The fatigue-suppressing, pulse-changing, respiration-altering, psychogalvanic-affecting properties of music have been realized since 1956. Arcade and video game makers are aware of the tempo and pitch effects from ascending melodies that enhance their precision skills during those playing the games. The pleasure centers activated during chocolate-eating, cocaine usage, and coitus are also activated when feeling the thrills of music-listening. [10]

As we state that music impacts the brain, we don’t mean that its sound waves travel to the brain and move it physically, but there is an affiliation between the nervous system and how people respond to music. To travel through your body, the waves enter the cochlea that assorts the intricate sounds into their fundamental frequencies before traveling to the auditory cortex, located in the temporal lobe, through tuned fibers and neural discharges. The brain can’t decipher each tone in isolation and instead must hierarchically organize all the sequences of tones together to make sense of the relationships between the sounds and communicate emotion and meaning. Neuroimaging studies have revealed this. [10]

We may be quick to assume that there is just one brain region responsible for every task and action that we can complete, when, in fact, there can often be several different brain regions applicable to just one activity. Several case studies have suggested that more than one brain region is involved with music recognition and music-making.  

In 1953 Russian composer Vissarion Shebalin’s abilities for speaking and understanding speech were damaged after a stroke whereas his music writing abilities remained undamaged, allowing him to continue writing until his 1963 demise.

A study on Alzheimer patients revealed that they could remember song lyrics 62% of the time whereas they could only remember non-lyrical stuff 37% of the time.

A woman who suffered temporal lobe and auditory cortical damage was able to retain her intellectual and linguistic skills but could not identify formerly known music nor identify any new music nor discriminate between different melodies.  

I think it is quite difficult to deny music’s relevance to pain as it awakens so many memories and emotions and amplifies our social experiences. 

Music has a nostalgic power that can feel almost irresistible, especially if you have a restless or unremitting longing to be unmarred by your painful days of being old. Music travels back in time to help you revisit the jubilation you felt when you were young on summer vacations with your best friends, going to your favorite shopping malls, driving down an idyllic rustic road, exploring the new feelings of falling in love for the first time, etc. This exclusive sort of communication helps to bring together and classify social groups, generations, and cultures. Music is a form of storytelling. It augments the meaning of rituals. It helps children and adults remember their history and the significance of their culture. The acoustic patterns and auditory representations interact with the brain to create conscious experiences far too many to count. Hence, the nature of human interaction with music and musical effects on the brain are enormously intricate.

As the nervous system is said to have a relationship with language and action, also said to be guided by the mirror neuron system, musical processing also is said to influence the nervous system. A 2006 US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health report relayed the hypothesis that mirror neurons, located in the premotor cortex areas in humans and parietal areas in the macaque brain, are responsible for the intoxicating affective responses to music. [11] Mirror neurons play a part in how we empathize with others by simple non-musical, non-lyrical speech, but that connection with other people’s minds becomes deepened when music is played.

To conclude an important point here, the US National Library of Medicine might say it better than me:

“…the production of music involves well-coordinated motor actions that produce the physical vibrations of sound. The experience of music thus involves the perception of purposeful, intentional and organized sequences of motor acts as the cause of temporally synchronous auditory information. Thus, according to the simulation mechanism implemented by the human mirror neuron system, a similar or equivalent motor network is engaged by someone listening to singing/drumming as the motor network engaged by the actual singer/drummer; from the large-scale movements of different notes to the tiny, subtle movements of different timbres. This allows for co-representation of the musical experience, emerging out of the shared and temporally synchronous recruitment of similar neural mechanisms in the sender and the perceiver of the musical message. This shared musical representation has a similar potential for communication as shared language or action.” [11]

Pain and the meaning of life

So, what is purpose in the face of pain? Why do music and stories tell the unconscious to find such transcendental meaning in the fabric of life and everything in motion?

It may be true for the reductionist that you and I, along with the world of materials, are essentially just molecules, atoms, and even quarks in motion. It may be true for the Skinnerian thinkers that all our behaviors are the result of past learning. We do whatever we do because of what each of our brain regions tell us to do. Whatever we do comes from the simple set of variables that always wrestle with us. The whole can’t be greater than the sum of the parts, in principle. But the whole stream of human conscious experience, with our primal instincts that speak to us every step of the way, can’t care about that in the least, even as we bear in mind what we are, intrinsically.

 Human experience and primal instincts ultimately care about order and chaos; order being the place where your dreams thrive and chaos being the place where you end up when everything collapses. Order is the place of familiarity, the smooth and un-sinuous path of fairytale and myth that we always long for. Order is the accomplishment of who we want to be at the end of the story and the free-spirited character we are when dancing and singing. Chaos is all those objects, situations, and paths we neither know nor understand. Chaos is full of obstacles and challenges and doubts and questions. Chaos is the pain that dissipates with the stories of happy endings and songs about achieving our greatest potential.

But isn’t it strange that, as our potential is realized after great struggle, we want to know about the origins of the issue to aid us in the pursuit? Anytime you are on an uncertain, chaotic path you want to know how you got there to help determine where you are going. Strangely, chaos is also the “formless potential” from which the God of Genesis chapter 1 in the Holy Bible summoned order, using spoken word at the inception of time. Likewise, as we are made in that Image, we can derive action and meaning from that “formless potential” to defeat our pain. [12]

References:

[1] https://www.duffysrehab.com/rehab/vicodin/causes-effects/

[2] https://www.addictioncenter.com/opiates/morphine/

[3] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/day-without-pain/201506/all-pain-is-real

[4] https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11682-012-9179-y

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3273616/

[6] https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/job-wrestling-with-suffering

[7] https://www.learnreligions.com/the-four-noble-truths-450095

[8] https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/storytelling-in-teaching

[9] https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/science_of_the_story

[10]https://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1162&context=honors

[11] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2555420/

[12] 12 Rules For Life-An Antidote to Chaos, Jordan Peterson, Chapter 2, page 35-36

[13] https://www.haaretz.com/jewish/MAGAZINE-who-really-wrote-the-book-of-job-1.5434183

2 thoughts on “You Spend Most of Your Life Fighting and Avoiding Pain

Add yours

  1. This is well written and lots of good points. Although we humans avoid pain there are exceptions like childbirth pains and people who donate blood/organs, so everyone can relate to feeling one form of pain or another but some are better at coping than others.

    The music section reminded me of a line in Marin Morris’s I Could Use A Love Song, which I think emphasizes how much music can effect us as well be a trigger for painful memories and sweet memories.

    Like

    1. I could have mentioned that music can trigger painful memories, but I figured that should be for another essay. Thank you for your insights, Margaret. Please come back next time.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: