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Pain: Dickinson versus Descartes

Kwarlizzle's picture

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       Pain is one of the more unpleasant physical and emotional sensations that humans feel. At first glance it is easy to assume that pain is an emotional occurrence: after all it seems to be subjective. For instance, I have a very low pain threshold and scream at the slightest prick, whereas I have met people who don’t do more than sigh through something as painful as childbirth. A little research on my part, however, has taught me that what I had always considered a mental process is at its heart a neurobiological one: the ‘brain’ according to Dickinson strikes again.

      Most physical pain is processed and ‘felt’ in the brain. Sensory receptors at the ‘site’ of the pain send signals to the thalamus, which directs these signals to other parts of the central nervous system to be interpreted (Walker). The somatosensory cortex of the CNS “identifies and localizes” the pain before I begin to physically feel pain in the pertinent area of my body, and the limbic system is where the emotion of the pain is felt; then the all-important frontal cortex “assigns meaning to the pain” (How you feel pain).

      Knowing that pain – the type that analgesics can dull – is a physical process makes more sense when I realized that the drug action of many analgesics occurs in the brain. Tylenol, for instance, works by somehow inhibiting1 the free-flow of signals to and from the CNS necessary to produce the feeling of pain (Drug Profiles).  Thus I discovered a very Dickensian explanation to an occurrence I had heretofore attributed to Descartes.

      But where does Descartes come in? Personally, I find that a Dickensian explanation works well with physical pain, but I rely on Descartes’ philosophy when it comes to dealing with ‘mental’ pain. Surely Dickinson is not enough to explain the pain of depression, of loss, of heartbreak? Yes, there are those who will submit that the fact that anti-depressants are used to successfully treat people who suffer from chronic depression shows that there is a neurological connection to ‘mental pain.’ While that is true, it is important to note that it is only a very small part of the whole picture. Sufferers of chronic depression or other forms of ‘chronic mental pain’ are a small number compared to the vast majority of people on this globe who deal with mental pain without needing drugs. Perhaps for chronic sufferers, it is a case of the mind impinging on matter?

      Two summers ago I watched a woman who had endured hours of labor and a painful episiotomy in the throes of agony as her son died not long after birth; her agony was not the result of the pain caused by childbirth, but the pain of her loss.

       That same summer I watched another woman who was ostracized because of a medical condition speak out in anguish when the prospect of correcting this condition was about to be delayed.

       It is with this type of pain – a pain that is not a result of a breach of bodily workings but a breach of human emotions – that I find myself turning to Descartes’ philosophy. In situations like these, talking about the effects of different neurotransmitters and lack of endorphins (a Dickensian explanation) will just not cut it: in these situations the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, so to speak. The workings of these endorphins, these neurotransmitters, seem to me to be a manifestation in the brain and the body of the turmoil in the mind, after the fashion of Descartes. Merging Descartes and Dickinson in this situation certainly paints a more wholesome and understandable picture, at least in my opinion.

       For me the crux of the matter is this: there has always been more to my life than the tidy explanations scientists have offered. I am more than a brain, more than a cardiovascular system, a digestive system, a limbic system. Part of my personhood is my mind – and so saying my idiosyncrasies are a result of differences in my brain alone is not sufficient explanations for me. I am more than the physical but still a physical being so that everything that occurs within me has to have some ties to the physical. It makes sense then that the workings of my mind would also reflect in my brain. It may be all roundabout, but it makes perfect sense to me. And since I am the one who has to live this life, it is my opinions that matter most.

       I believe both in Dickinson and Descartes, but more in Descartes than Dickinson. What interests me is realizing everyday that Dickinson and Descartes are not mutually exclusive to one another – the things I ascribe to the mind alone manifest themselves in the working of my brain, and sometimes, altering the processes of my brain can alter the state of my mind – that is fascinating, and worth noting, and all that matters.







Works Cited:

“Drug Profiles: Acetaminophen or Tylenol.” 2009. Migraine Awareness Group. 18th Feb. 2010 <>.

“How You Feel Pain.” The Mayo Clinic. 2009. 18th Feb. 2010 <>.

Walker, Richard. “Pain Mechanisms.” 2009. 18th Feb. 2010 <>.




1 Scientists are still not sure what the exact mechanism Tylenol employs – they just know that it works in the CNS, and not at the site of the pain.





Paul Grobstein's picture

varieties of pain, and the brain

"It is with this type of pain – a pain that is not a result of a breach of bodily workings but a breach of human emotions – that I find myself turning to Descartes’ philosophy."

There are indeed lots of different types of pain, some better accounting for in terms of the nervous system, some less so, for the moment.  Even those better accounted for, though, are not simple.  There is a significant emotional component to "physical" pain, for example.  And lots of examples of "mental" pain that are increasingly understandable in terms of the nervous system (we'll talk later about phantom limb pain).  Maybe there is even, in the brain, an explanation for "mind over matter"?