Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Pain, memory and anticipation

Which of these two would you go for if you had to choose?

Scenario 1: You will experience severe pain, of constant intensity J, for an hour later today.  You will live for at least the next 40 years.

Scenario 2: You will experience severe pain, of intensity J, for about a quarter second every day for the next 40 years, which will add up to an hour.

Keep all other things equal: in neither case will you get PTSD; in neither case will the pain come at an inconvenient time that would cause you to crash a car; etc.

Scenario 2 is appealing--a quarter of a second of pain experience does not seem so bad.  You notice it, and then it's over.  But knowing that every day you will face that pain again could wear one down.  So it's not clear whether Scenario 1 or Scenario 2 is the wiser choice.  But now consider the following scenario that fixes the problems with Scenario 2:

Scenario 3: You will experience severe pain, of intensity J, for about a quarter second every day for the next 40 years, which will add up to an hour.  Moreover, you will not remember that you took up this offer, and immediately after you've experienced the pain for a quarter second, you will completely forget about it.

Scenario 3 doesn't have the disadvantages of Scenario 2.  The mere raw experiencing of a quarter second of intense pain does not seem very bad, not even if repeated daily.  I think Scenario 3 is significantly preferable to Scenario 1.

But now suppose Jones does not anticipate future pain or remember past pain.  Scenario 1 for Jones is just like Scenario 3 for you.  In Scenario 1, the quarter second pain experiences are all bunched up in a big nasty hour-long period, but that bunching up makes no subjective difference for Jones without relevant memories and anticipations.  Since Scenario 1 for you is significantly worse than Scenario 3 for you, it follows that Scenario 1 for you is significantly worse than Scenario 1 for Jones.

This thought experiment suggests that a good deal of the badness of our pain comes from memory and anticipation.

I've wondered before whether pain for animals that lack our cognitive sophistication is worse or less bad than it is for us.  A reason to think it's worse for them is that they don't have the intellectual resources for distracting themselves from the pain (e.g., by means of memories of or hopes for a happier past).  But the above thought experiment strongly suggests that for animals and people with very low cognitive sophistication, pain is significantly less bad than for normal humans.

I wonder how exactly the badness of pain depends on cognitive sophistication.

4 comments:

Heath White said...

I think you're right about cognitive sophistication making a difference; I've even wondered if any mere sensation could be intrinsically bad.

However, for what it's worth, I'll take scenario 1 over either 2 or 3. Those are like getting stabbed every day for forty years...just get it over with already.

Jarrett Cooper said...

Prof. Alexander Pruss,

As one who is familiar with anxiety, there's actually a word for this. It's called anticipatory anxiety--where you dread the day waiting on something that will occur.

What I'd is that the cognitive sophistication of (normal) humans makes pain much more worse than that of lower cognitive sophisticated creatures. Mainly, for humans when we experience pain, we can recall certain past experiences that correlate with pain that we are currently experiencing.

Take this extremely tragic example: A women was rapped when she was young. Several years later she finds the man of her life and becomes married. The night of their marriage, she and her husband have sex. She experiences pain while her husband begins entering her. Given her cognitive sophistication she correlates the pain she is currently experiencing with the pain she had experienced when she was rapped. This makes the pain she is currently experiencing much more worse. Given the psychological factors makes the pain worse, then it would be if she didn't have the cognitive ability to recall past events.

Leo Carton Mollica said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Leo Carton Mollica said...
This comment has been removed by the author.