A brood comb

….philosophical and other notes….

Can There Be An Illusion of Pain?

Posted by Tanas Gjorgoski on October 18, 2007

Over at Philosophy Hurts Your Head, Sam has a post about how one can’t be mistaken about being in pain.

Though I’m not a physicalist, and don’t equate the pain with c-fibers firing, or something like that, I’m believe that one can have illusion of pain (in the finger, head, or wherever).

I think it is unproblematic that there is difference between seeing a rabbit, and illusion of seeing a rabbit. While the two cases might be indistinguishable for the person in certain moment (and really, that is what makes it illusion), the claim that we are not actually seeing a rabbit when there is an illusion, has a clear sense.

Now, we might be inclined to say, that in cases of colors, the situation is different. But really when talking about colors we distinguish a thing being red, and thing appearing red. So it can’t be that we use “red” for the qualia itself (let’s put aside the issue if we need to assume qualia as entities or not). We don’t say that white ball under red light is red. We say that it is a white ball, and that we just have illusion of it being red. We speak of the “red qualia” only when we assume that the appearing same of those two (a red thing and white thing under red light) is due to there being some “qualia” entities which are same in both cases.

In this way, we make distinction between ‘is’ and ‘appears’ for rabbits, colors, voices, and so on. We use the words simpliciter to refer to the things, and we may use them combined with ‘qualia’ (e.g. ‘red qualia’, ‘rabbit qualia’ etc…) for theoretical entities which we assume in order to explain sameness of experience.

So, now the question is, why would ‘pain’ be special case? Why would we wouldn’t use the word for the thing itself (e.g. pain the finger), accept that there is possibilities of illusions of pain, and if we are inclined to certain theory, speak of ‘pain qualia’ as entities which explain our inability to distinguish the pain from illusion of pain.


One reason we might treat ‘pain’ as a special case is because in those other cases, we have witnessed situations where we are under such illusion, but it is pretty easy to change the context somehow and “break the illusion”. But in case of a pain, we seem not to encounter such “appearance” situations.

I think though that there are examples of such situations. Several times I have mistaken cold water for very hot one, and in that split second, I felt the pain in my finger. (I’m guessing here that me being mistaken that my finger is being hurt by very hot water is a mistake of there being pain in my finger). The other example is with the cases of phantom limbs, where patients with amputated limbs say that they still feel like they have the limb, and that they feel pains in them. Here we have a case of illusion of the limb along with the pain being “broken” by using mirror boxes. Now, I agree that those are not best examples, as in the first case one might argue that I didn’t really feel pain, but that somehow I expected there to be a pain. Of course, I’m not even saying that I felt the pain, I’m just saying that one can be mistaken that there is a pain in the finger, even for a split second. In the second example, it is not very clear what (if anything) is being mistaken for a pain. But, I think those examples at least help make sense of the claim that one can mistake something else for a pain. Probably there are other more clear examples, in which one can mistake some other sensation for a pain for a longer time.


The other argument one can give against distinguishing ‘pain’ from ‘illusion of a pain’, is that in both cases the person is affected the same way. There are two responses for this.

First, we are affected by other kind of illusions, same as we are affected by the real things. We might be afraid of an illusionary lion the same way we are afraid of lion.

Second, one can blame the common-sense that it doesn’t have a precise enough awareness of phenomena which we relate to pain. Namely,  in most cases the pain goes along with certain affecting of us, and because those other cases in which those two are ‘divorced’ are very rare, people don’t distinguish between those two, and is aware of them as one single phenomenon. So, the word ‘pain’ is used for this tightly related duo. However there are cases (e.g. pain asymbolia syndrome) where person feels the pain, but it doesn’t suffer from it. So, now, having better awareness of the phenomenon than common person, we can ask for more precise usage of the word ‘pain’. In relation to such distinction, and possibility to use ‘pain’ for the very sense as distinguished from our suffering, we can now say that argument that ‘it affects us same’, can’t have the same force.

One can point also that ‘being in pain’ is often used for this second part of the phenomenon (i.e. how it affects us). So, as long as we are clear what we mean by the term, one can I guess agree that one can be mistaken that there is a pain in the finger, while still being in pain. Said like this, it does even seem as not very problematical sentence.

Related posts:
Cyborgs Sharing Pain, Again
Does Pain Have To Hurt?
Couple More Thoughts on Pain

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3 Responses to “Can There Be An Illusion of Pain?”

  1. Sam D said

    I had still been thinking about this (in between my various work deadlines). It was my understanding that the areas of the brain stimulated by illusions of pain, such as the Thermal Grill Illusion, were similar to those stimulated by the actual real pain that you think you are experiencing. That is to say that the area of brain stimulated by the illusion of noxious cold (caused by the warm & cool bars of the thermal grill) is the same area stimulated by actually touching something really cold.

    This, along with the original arguments over at Fides Quaerens Intellectum led me to question how anyone could concurrently hold that:
    a) Our knowledge about being in states of pain is not infallible
    and
    b) The feeling of pain can be identified with stimulated C-fibres (etc).

    To grossly over simplify: Pain = Stimulated C-Fibres
    but
    Illusion of Pain = Stimulated C-Fibres.

    I think what you are saying makes sense, but I confess that I’m still perplexed by the whole question.

  2. Hi Sam D,

    Yeah, I agree that holding both (a) and (b) is problematic.

    Thanks for pointing to the Thermal Grill Illusion, BTW, I wasn’t aware of it!

  3. Lou Agosta said

    John Searle objects that “He has an experience of pain” does not describe an intentional state or act. The objection is that the surface structure of the statement is misleading. Searle makes this assertion (Searle 1983: 39ftnt.), perhaps because he does not want to fight again the weary battles about the incorrigibility of pain. For better or worse, the intentionality of empathy must engage directly with pain and its many manifestations. According to the objection, the experience of pain is just being in pain. The experience of pain is pain, pure-and-simple, a brute fact. In comparison, “He has an experience of yellow” or “He has an experience of anger” does describe an instance of intentionality. The anger is about something, say, an insult. The yellow is about something, say, a slice of lemon. Yet this is a tougher case than one might at first think. The reply to the objection is direct: Pain is about as many different things, shades, and aspects of experience as the experience of color. Pain is a representation of the chemical and endochrinological milieu of the organism that powerfully and immediately focuses attention and awareness (“consciousness”) on the site of an injury, on a source of disequilibrium, or on something = x that requires further inquiry because the organism is threatened or because inquiry is warranted for any arbitrary reason. Pain in its myriad forms can be redescribed as an information processing system parallel to but at a physiologically more primitive level than cognitive processing or emotional signaling. Pain is a representation of damage to the organism, and, in unrelated situations, a deviation from a norm of equilibrium in one’s inner physiological (biological) milieu. The experience of pain allows of wide quantitative and qualitative variations. Intense and abundant pain is contingently unmistakable, faint and minimal pain is easy to misidentify and readily becomes a source of error.

    In general, it is risky for ordinary language philosophers to correct ordinary language as misleading; and a case can be made that pain is as intentional as any other mental experience. Part of the challenge is that a random hallucination of yellow is less attention focusing and more sensible than a random hallucination of pain. People do not generally hallucinate pains – except for pains experienced in phantom limbs of amputees as well as those born without limbs. A hallucination of pain is still painful – but there is no organic damage to a local site. A hallucination is defined as an experience for which there is no ordinary causal account, requiring an explanation in terms of the exceptional processing of the sensory (perceptual) system itself. It is the self-stimulation of the nervous, visual, auditory, tactile system in the absence of the ordinary artifacts of experience. Thus, a perceptual mechanism of object constancy causes various optical illusions – hallucinations – as rail road-tracks converge at the horizon. The phantom limb is the self-stimulation of the body image used to navigate and manage the organism’s trajectory through the environment. (See R. Melzack. (1973). The Puzzle of Pain) Phantom limb pain is a type of hallucination. If not, it is hard to say what would count as one. There is damage in abundance, too, as a limb is missing, although the trauma may or may not be remembered. So even if the individual with the pain in his phantom limb is not having an intentional experience, one can empathize with his pain and the act of empathy with his pain is indeed an intentional act. The pains and paralysis of classic hysteria were also arguably hallucinatory, at least in the sense that there was no organic lesion.

    However, in order to get to the issues crucial to empathy and intentionality, the line of least resistance is to allow the objection tentatively and for the sake of discussion. Even if one allows that “He is in pain” is not intentional, such is not the case with the empathically based assertion “I feel that he is in pain.” “I feel that he is in pain” is an entirely different assertion and one indeed intentional. Why? The introduction of the other in addition to oneself and this other being in pain is sufficient to activate the vicarious representation of pain in the empathizing subject.

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