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Can We All Be Superman? The Exploration of Pain

Tara Raju's picture

Superman would be jealous of Ashlyn Blocker. Why? Blocker, a five year old girl, cannot feel pain. She is the victim of a rare genetic disorder, a condition known as congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis, affecting her nerve endings which give her the super human ability to not sense extreme temperatures, a scratched cornea, broken legs, and abrasions, among other injuries (1). What gives certain individuals the ability to feel intense, teeth clenching pain and others, like Blocker, to feel absolutely nothing at all?

Foremost, there are three major components in the body that work together in order to process pain including the peripheral nerves, the spinal cord and the brain (3). The peripheral nerves are the nerves that are able to extend from the spinal cord to the skin and other regions of the body (3). These nerves have receptors at the ends that can respond to various sensations including pressure, temperatures, touch, etc. (3). The pain message enters through the dorsal horn on the spinal cord which releases neurotransmitters that activate other cells in the spinal cord facilitating the relay of pain message to the brain (3). The thalamus in the brain is then responsible for forwarding the message to the appropriate regions of the brain including the somatosensory cortex (physical sensation region), the limbic system (emotional feeling region) and the frontal cortex (thinking region) (3). For the body to acknowledge the painful stimulus the sequence of events must be executed in the correct manner and because the process is complex there is most certainly room for error which could account in some cases of the differences in pain perception.

Since everybody is different that means that everyone has a unique pain sensory system. When pain messages are received in the spinal cord, specialized cells act as gatekeepers which effectively filter pain messages (3). Some individuals may have a stronger gate that filters out more pain messages and therefore will decrease the sensation of pain. Furthermore, the pain message can change in the peripheral nerves and spinal cord (3). The body has the ability to intensify a pain message that is sent to your brain which is often characterized as the body being sensitized to a given pain stimulus (3). Again, everyone is capable of harboring a different gatekeeper and thus will perceive pain differently depending on what their individual gatekeeper is keeping from the brain or is intensifying to the brain. In addition, the brain has the function of releasing natural painkillers like endorphins or enkephalins that diminish pain messages (3). If an individual lacks or has an over production of these natural pain killers it would contribute to the differences in pain perception. Finally, the way that pain is perceived uniquely from one individual to the next is also influenced by a myriad of different factors including upbringing, attitude, expectations, age, sex, social and culture influences just to name a few (3).

A simple study was conducted in which seventeen individuals were subjected to thermal stimulation for thirty seconds “on” and thirty seconds “off” over a duration of five and a half minutes and then after the experience were asked to rate their pain from zero, being the least, to ten, being the most intense. The findings were not at all surprising as there was a distribution of ratings from one all the way to nine (2). The most interesting part of the study was that during the course of the five and half minutes, the researchers were simultaneously using functional imaging of the participants to indicate the differences in brain activation. For individuals that reported more intense pain in comparison to the other subjects that reported less pain there was greater activation in the primary somatosensory cortex, the anterior cingulate cortex and the prefrontal cortex (2). The differences in the somatosensory cortex most definitely indicate that the brain is receiving the sensation in a different manner and also because of the differences in the frontal cortex; the brain is interpreting and thinking about the sensations differently. What does this all mean? Does that mean that mean if one individual is sensing pain more intensely has a more active frontal cortex and therefore has the ability to think and interpret at a higher level than someone who does not perceive pain as intensely? With each new bit of information and every new conclusion, there are a plethora of questions to be answered in response.

It is my belief that in addition to the actually science behind the process of pain perception and tolerance, that there are external factors that influence what people feel and do not feel. People are influenced by their mother who told them to “Bite the bullet” or by a societal expectation like males should be able to tolerate pain better than females. But it is also imperative to ask the question to what extent do each play a role in pain perception and tolerance? Does the psychological aspect overwhelm the actual biology of the body’s ability to perceive and interpret pain? It seems that there is no way to actually make a vast conclusion for the billions of individuals that inhabit the planet, but it begs the question, can we all be Superman?

Works Cited

(1) ABC News. (2004, November 14). Girl Struggles With Lack of Physical Pain. Retrieved February 24, 2008, from ABC News:

(2) Feldman, J. B. (2004, January). The Neurobiology of Pain, Affect and Hyponosis. Retrieved Febuary 24, 2008, from BNet: Business Network:

(3) Mayo Clinic Staff. (2007, February 13). How Your Feel Pain. Retrieved February 24, 2008, from


Paul Grobstein's picture

pain and the brain: "actual science" and "external factors"?

"Does the psychological aspect overwhelm the actual biology of the body’s ability to perceive and interpret pain?" What's the difference between "actual biology" and the "psychological aspect"?  Along these lines, see my comment on Body Dysmorphic Disorder