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Gwern_Branwen comments on Serious Stories - Less Wrong

39 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 08 January 2009 11:49PM

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Comment author: Gwern_Branwen 09 January 2009 11:18:13PM 10 points [-]

TGGP: why are you opposed to the idea that we may want to retain parts of pain?

If we could get rid of the 'painfulness' of pain, and keep the informative part of pain, that'd be ideal. With no pain at all, we're in the situation of someone with nerve damage who might lose a limb to gangrene when she accidentally damages something but doesn't notice it. (Anyone for _The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever_?)

Painless pain isn't all that strange an idea:

'The second pain pathway is a much more recent scientific discovery. It runs parallel to the sensory pathway, but isn't necessarily rooted in signals from the body. The breakthrough came when neurologists discovered a group of people who, after a brain injury, were no longer bothered by pain. They still felt the pain, and could accurately describe its location and intensity, but didn't seem to mind it at all. The agony wasn't agonizing.

This strange condition - it's known as pain asymbolia - results from damage to a specific subset of brain areas, like the amygdala, insula and anterior cingulate cortex, that are involved in the processing of emotions. As a result, these people are missing the negative feelings that normally accompany our painful sensations. Their muted response to bodily injury demonstrates that it is our feelings about pain - and not the pain sensation itself - that make the experience of pain so awful. Take away the emotion and a stubbed toe isn't so bad.' http://scienceblogs.com/cortex/2009/01/back_pain.php

Comment author: pnrjulius 07 June 2012 12:17:44AM 1 point [-]

On the other hand, there must be some downside to pain asymbolia, or we'd all have it. (Plainly the mutation exists; why isn't it selected for?)

Comment author: TheOtherDave 07 June 2012 01:21:39AM 0 points [-]

Perhaps it is selected for, but selection hasn't had long enough to operate to disseminate it throughout the population.

Comment author: brahmaneya 15 November 2012 02:01:12AM 2 points [-]

Probably because the negative feelings about the pain are what strongly motivate you to avoid it, and hence avoid physical damage.

Comment author: gwern 15 November 2012 02:12:18AM *  0 points [-]

There may be disadvantage, yes. But it could also be that pain asymbolia is fine in a creature as high-level as a human - but without any selective fitness advantage, what would drive it to fixation in a selective sweep? Given zero reproductive advantage and possible disadvantage, it's no surprise that it's rare.

Comment author: Chrysophylax 14 January 2014 09:45:17PM 4 points [-]

Because a child who doesn't find pain unpleasant is really, really handicapped, even in the modern world. The people who founded A Gift of Pain had a daughter with pain asymbolia who is now mostly blind, amongst other disabilities, through self-inflicted damage. I'm not sure whether leprosy sufferers have the no-pain or no-suffering version of pain insensitivity (I think the former) but apparently it's the reason they suffer such damage.

This book seems to be a useful source for people considering the question of whether pain could be improved.