Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Responses to Pain: What accounts for certain differences?

Kendra's picture

This semester, our class attemptedto tackle the perception of pain. Where exactly does it come from? Moreimportantly, what is pain? Essentially, pain can be described in two ways:objectively or subjectively. Those who describe pain objectively tend to justconcentrate on the stimulus (injury) itself and thus, only aware of the bodilytissue damage involved with pain. On the other hand, subjectivists perceivepain in terms of how it affects their body and ultimately to what degree theyfeel pain. In reading about the differences in the perception of pain, I beganto wonder how other factors affected a response to pain, such as onesethnicity, and what causes one not to have the typical response to pain, suchas crying or screaming? In examining the origin of various responses to pain,one can ultimately see why experiencing pain is crucial for human beings.

            Manyfactors affect ones perception of pain, including ones personality tendency,age or gender, but is there a connection between ones ethnicity and theirresponse to pain? In making this connection it is important to realize what theterm  ‘ethnicity’ means.  Some researchers believe that the terms‘ethnicity’ and ‘race’ are closely connected, but ‘ethnicity’ ultimatelydiffers because it constitutes the differences within a race rather than acrossraces. This description of ethnicity is not a concrete concept and even thoughit has only begun to gain attention in the world of pain sensation studies inthe past ten years, a study by Bhopal and Rankin found that only 15% ofscientific journals defined ethnicity in a study [1]. As with any other testinvolving ethnicity, the correlation between pain and ethnicity was often foundto be problematic because of the countless other factors that are involved inones perception of pain, such as wealth, social class or intermarriage [1]. So,instead of concentrating solely on ones ethnicity researchers have begun totake into account the behaviors within ones respective culture and have foundthat there is a thin line between making generalizations about ones culturalbehavior and possibly discovering a breakthrough in science. In an article bythe International Association for the Study of Pain, it was realized that

            “The challenge of ethnicity is to understand how far the human experience ofpain not only measurable differences that distinguish specific groups but alsodeep similarities that bind us together- despite our diverse, historicallychanging ethnic and cultural backgrounds”[1]

The research in the connectionbetween ones ethnicity and their perception of pain is still young in the datait produces and has come upon many obstacles that can get in the way ofdiscovering any valuable data. But the current data is promising and there maybe an actual connection in the future, which will be very difficult to concludebecause of the ever-changing meaning of ‘ethnicity’. In realizing that thereare varying responses to pain based on different factors, what happens when thenegative emotions that are shown when a sensation of pain is felt is absent.

            Tofurther assess this phenomenon, one must know what exactly ‘pain’ is definedas. Defining the varying responses to pain is relatively simpler than definingwhat the phenomenon of pain actually is. A large number of definitions for painarose from various sources, but for the purpose of this paper, pain is definedby the Merriam Webster Dictionary as “ a localized, physical sufferingassociated with bodily disorder (such as disease or injury)…a basic bodilysensation induced by a noxious stimulus characterized by physical discomfort”.This definition of pain seems to embody both the objectivist and subjectivistreaction to pain, but how does one assess a condition where the negativeresponse to pain is absent? People who have asymbolia to pain- or painasymbolia- are drastically different from people who do not feel pain at all,because people with pain asymbolia are able to accurately report the quality,location and strength of a painful stimulus but ultimately lack the negativeemotional response [2]. Pain asymbolia is a result of damage to the insularcortex of the brain when the pain sensation is received by one part of thebrain but is ultimately not passed to the area of the brain that perceives thepain as threatening and triggers an avoidance reaction [3]. The way in whichpeople who have pain asymbolia are muted in their response to pain makes onerealize that it is not the pain sensation itself that makes the experience ofpain so bad it is the emotion-laden responses that add the negativity.

            Althoughit seems that everyone responds to pain similarly-rather, negatively- the wayin which one responds to pain varies by the different factors in their lives. Ifound it interesting to see how ones ethnicity could affect their response topain and to also research people who don’t react to pain at all. But even inresearching only two factors that could affect ones response to pain, it isplain to see that the sensation of pain- albeit negative- is crucial to humanbeings. Although pain “ serves no purpose that can be determined, pain doesserve as a warning signal…from noxious agents that may present a threat to thesurvival of the individual” [2]. In most cases, it matters not the reaction topain but the fact that the sensation is present in the first place, becausethat present sensation could end up saving someone’s life.


Works Cited





Serendip Visitor's picture

how is fear received into the

how is fear received into the body? is it the same as retraction from pain? we retract from spiders anticipating the possibility of pain. understanding does or does not affect the fear of anticipation of pain. what does the mind say if you were friendly to the spider but it still bit you? does the body feel the pain more, less, or the same as if you fell upon the spider by accident? is pain the same if you anticipate it? does an injection hurt the same if you know it's coming? i would insist on holding my children on my lap when they got immunizations, because it seemed to hurt them more if alone on a table without knowing anything. in short-fear increases pain. certainly betrayal increases pain. if you expect s/1 to catch you, but fall on the ground, it hurts more than knowing you will be hurt.

Serendip Visitor's picture

i'm curious at how much

i'm curious at how much bigotry is a part of natural self preservation? the odd one will be eaten. how does society start helping that odd man out?? religion only helps a few. how do leaders teach people to swallow bigotry and help odd man out?? are we born bigoted as self preservation, or is it learned?. the avoidance of pain is stronger than any pleasure, yes?

Paul Grobstein's picture

pain and culture

Does it make sense to study "ethnicity" any more (or less) than it does "race"? What reason is there to expect differences in regard to pain in either case?