The following is an excerpt from the book I am still writing. It is from the chapter on the fundamental unconscious algorithms that govern our life.
As such I would be very grateful for any feedback. Especially the type of feedback that helps me improve. So don’t be afraid to tell me you got bored or annoyed while reading.
2.2 The Pain Algorithm(s)
Pain has many forms: when you put your hand in the fire, when you get hurt in love, when you dread climbing on a high wall, when your legs burn when running.
When we think about pain, we tend to think of these immediate sensations. Yet pain is much more complex.
Pain exists to improve or prevent bad stuff.
Pain exists to alleviate or prevent risks which reduced evolutionary fitness in the Paleolithic. Such as injury or death, reduced chances for reproduction, uncertainty of any kind, rejection, decrease in status, risks to offspring, loss of resources.
Pain is not just pain. It is pain and fear. It has two dimensions:
- Alleviate a negative event that has happened or is about to happen. This is pain.
- Prevent a negative event. This is fear, anxiety, stress.
Both are facets of the same goals of minimizing risk and harm.
Avoiding pain and anxiety takes precedes over pursuing pleasure because humans are risk averse. In most of our history, most risks had the potential to kill. One cut could become infected and kill. One fall could mean no food. One disagreement with a tribe member could lead to exile, and death.
How does risk avoidance work? How does it impact our modern behaviour?
Let’s examine the mechanisms for damage mitigation aka pain and risk avoidance aka fear.
It signals that something is wrong and motivates corrective action. There are two types: physical pain and emotional pain.
Put your hand in fire and it burns. It hurts. You take it out. The pain stops or subsides.
Same with thorns, barbs, spikes, poison ivy, electricity, animals with large teeth, claws, horns.
Physical pain is a signal that something is wrong. It guides our actions towards solving the cause of the problem. Take your hand out of the fire. Subdue the angry dog that is biting you. Move the boulder that is crushing your foot. And so on.
Physical pain has some interesting aspects: easy to misinterpret, fallible, preventive.
Easy to misinterpret
For the unconscious pain is clear. Pain = bad. Stop pain = good. In the past stopping pain was almost always by removing its cause. In our modern society we have ways to remove the pain without removing the cause. These are painkillers.
Say you have a headache. You can take a painkiller and the headaches goes away. Your unconscious thinks you solved the problem. In fact you have not even started to address the problem. Maybe your headache happened because the windows were open and there was a cold draft. With the painkiller you don’t feel pain, but the draft is still there affecting your head. When the medicine wears off, your pain will be even stronger.
Modern medicine focuses on eliminating pain and discomfort. It is only human for physicians to want their patients to feel better. But it is dangerous. Eliminating pain suppresses the information it provides. The cause might continue to exist, and fester.
It can be akin to taking painkillers because your hand is on fire. It’s better to take out the fire, not block the pain.
That being said, sometimes it is worth treating the pain itself. There are situations in the modern world when pain does not serve a useful purpose. Examples: during surgery, chronic pain from illness, pain from medical treatments, muscle soreness from physical exercise. These are situations for which we are not adapted. In such cases it is perfectly adequate to dull or snuff out the pain.
If you don’t know the cause of pain, you should not kill the pain.
If you know the cause and cannot solve it, you should kill the pain.
Although pain is in reaction to events, it does have a future element. When somebody punches you, you will feel the pain a split second before the punch actually lands. It’s why you react to fake punches the same way. You brain predicts the landing of the punch and reacts. This minimizes the negative impact it has.
This predictive element is limited. It allows a split second of reaction before the event occurs. It’s one of the ways in which what we call pain and what we call fear mix. Because they are facets of the same risk minimization algorithm.
It is a form of physical pain. Your eye hurt in reaction to very bright light. Ears signal pain when a sound is too loud. Disgust from the smell of rotten food, excrements or dead bodies is an unpleasant, painful sensation.
Sensory pain helps avoid risk. Feeling disgust from a bad smell prevents you from eating the foul-smelling stuff. Eyes hurting from bright light prevent you from longer, more damaging exposure.
Proprioceptive pain from physical exercise is similar. Johnny is out running. He feels exhausted. Legs feel either like impossibly heavy weights or like overboiled soft spaghetti. Heart feels like it’s going to burst through the chest like an alien from Alien. Breathing is a rapid staccato of huffing and puffing.
Johnny is so tired. All he wants is to lie down and not move. Going further seems like an impossible task. He is certain if he takes the next step, he will collapse, never to get up again.
Yet all of this is nothing more than energy conservation. Johnny is far from exhaustion.
Pain as prevention of exhaustion is incredibly effective. Very few people have ever succeeded in dying from physical exhaustion. They could only do it because they had the ‘help’ of frigid cold and unhospitable terrain.
If Johnny pushes through the exhaustion, it will dissipate. He will feel less tired. If he keeps going long enough, he will reach another threshold of fatigue. And so on. Even if he falls flat from fatigue, he will still be far from dying.
Anger, sadness, envy, anxiety, frustration, loneliness, depression and all other negative feelings are emotional pain.
Negative emotions signal something is wrong. They also transmit information on the cause of the problem and directions to fix it.
Frustration signals something is not working in what you are doing. It’s a signal to try a different approach.
Anger signals something bad is happening to you that should not be happening. You feel it in your power to rebel against this injustice at least to some degree. You feel it is unfair and unacceptable. Often you can find a person or personified entity towards which to direct this anger.
Envy is when someone has something that you would like to have. Almost always it’s linked with social status.
Loneliness is when you feel alone. It might happen when you are among people. It’s a signal for lack of community and social relationships, rather than an objective count of the number of people in your proximity.
Depression is complicated. It is described in many ways. I believe it is not one thing, but rather our word for when things are very bad and we do not know how to fix them. When we lack the motivation to solve the problem.
All of these emotions are not discrete things. It’s hard to say when there is anger versus frustration or anxiety or rage or sadness. Initiatives to map out all the distinct emotions have failed. Rather emotions are our interpretations of unmet needs and the world around us.
If our needs are unmet, this is pain in a sense. It applies regardless if the needs are physical or social or intellectual. Our unconscious takes this information of unmet needs and analyses the outside world. It tries to get a sense of how to solve these unmet needs. Emotions are the result. They are a mix of pain signals with interpretation and tactics to solve the problem.
There is research indicating that we form most strategies to solve unmet needs in early childhood.
Say his mother is leaving one-year old Johnny alone. His needs for belonging and safety are now not satisfied anymore. Little Johnny becomes unhappy. This is emotional pain.
What can he do?
He can cry as loud as he can to try to get his mother back. If his mother comes back and comforts him, he learns this strategy works. In an oversimplified way we could say he learns to be assertive and outspoken about his needs. He also learns to be confident in social relationships and have a high tolerance for absence (he learned the mother comes back).
What if his mother does not come back when he cries?
He will cry harder trying to bring her back. If it does not work, he will probably continue doing it until he gets exhausted. If the pattern keeps repeating he learns that people around him do not care about his needs. He learns to hide his needs and try to satisfy them in less sincere ways. Maybe he become manipulative. Maybe he becomes a loner, avoiding relationships because he expects disappointment. Maybe he needs constant validation in adult life because it was so uncertain in infancy.
There is data on orphans in communist Romania showing the extremes of this situation. At one point during communism abortions were outlawed. At the same time people were poor and did not have enough. This resulted in a lot of unwanted babies that the mothers could not raise. These babies wound up in state orphanages. These places were awful. There was insufficient staff and bad conditions. The nurses were taught to minimize contact with the infants.
These orphans grew up in a state of constant unmet need for affection. They had no mothers. In most cases the staff did not hold them or respond when they cried.
The result? They grew up into adults with high likelihood of addiction, drug use, bipolar, depression, anxiety. [https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/07/can-an-unloved-child-learn-to-love/612253/ ] Overall, they are high seekers of social validation. ‘Needy’ in pop-psychology terms. And they suffered damage, including on average smaller brains. [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romanian_orphans]
Getting back to the pain algorithms, negative emotions are pain (unmet needs) +strategy to solve it.
They are similar to hunger and thirst and other physical deprivations in that they push us towards actions. Each of us adopts different strategies, and feels different emotions, in response to similar situations because we learned them before in life.
Johnny and Stuart might both be cut off in traffic by another car. Johnny might react with anger and want to go yell at that driver. Stuart might react by feeling fearful and avoid a confrontation.
Different people have arrived at different strategies. Sometimes these are counter-productive in the modern context and in the long term. But the first algorithm (hyper-conservative) has gotten them stuck into our unconscious programming.
Emotions are not only about the pain of a current unmet need or problem. They are also about the risk of future problems. These emotions revolve around fear.
Coming next time: Pain Algorithms Part 2 - Fear