Pain as an agency problem: do smart or stupid species suffer more?

by on July 4, 2011 at 11:40 am in Science | Permalink

It is an interesting question, incidentally, why pain has to be so damned painful. Why not equip the brain with the equivalent of a little red flag, painlessly raised to warn, “Don’t do that again”? In The Greatest Show on Earth , I suggested that the brain might be torn between conflicting urges and tempted to ‘rebel’, perhaps hedonistically, against pursuing the best interests of the individual’s genetic fitness, in which case it might need to be whipped agonizingly into line. I’ll let that pass and return to my primary question for today: would you expect a positive or a negative correlation between mental ability and ability to feel pain? Most people unthinkingly assume a positive correlation, but why?

Isn’t it plausible that a clever species such as our own might need less pain, precisely because we are capable of intelligently working out what is good for us, and what damaging events we should avoid? Isn’t it plausible that an unintelligent species might need a massive wallop of pain, to drive home a lesson that we can learn with less powerful inducement?

That is from Richard Dawkins, via The Browser, still the best site on the internet.

1 Erik July 4, 2011 at 11:45 am

There was a study a while back which showed that the majority of users don’t read dialog boxes when using their computer. They treat dialog boxes as nuisances to be removed ASAP. If pain were a similar dialog box, it would have gone similarly ignored a lot of the time.
Granted, the modern optimum is probably different, but we should assume that evolution pushed us towards a level that was an optimum in the past, rather than arbitrarily making pain highly painful.

2 Michael F. Martin July 4, 2011 at 11:51 am

Intense pain is instrumental to social bonding — a point made repeatedly in The Strategy of Conflict. Even deliberate self-harm can have social benefits that would not accrue if pain were less painful.

Thanks to Diego Gambetta for the insight!

3 Rich Berger July 4, 2011 at 12:01 pm

Reading that small excerpt, I realize that the gene and evolution are Richard Dawkins gods.

4 Cliff July 4, 2011 at 1:16 pm

Except the gene and evolution actually exist

5 Tom July 4, 2011 at 1:48 pm

So Rich would be right.

6 blah July 4, 2011 at 2:38 pm

In fantasyland, yes. In real life, no.

7 Tom July 4, 2011 at 9:12 pm

Your comments do not suggest you know the difference.

8 Rich Berger July 4, 2011 at 5:09 pm

To put it another way, Dawkins has a quasi-religious belief in Unintelligent Design.

9 Ricardo July 4, 2011 at 9:44 pm

No, he wrote a 300-page book presenting a large amount of evidence in favor of that view. If you disagree with the evidence or his interpretation, perhaps you could write a rebuttal drawing on your own knowledge of biology?

10 Ron Potato July 5, 2011 at 1:16 pm

Only if you write a rebuttal drawing on your own knowledge of theology.

11 Ricardo July 5, 2011 at 9:31 pm

Exactly which theological argument are you expecting me to refute and what specific factual claims does it make? Since most theologians (or at least those who are Catholic and mainline Protestant as well as apparently most scholars of Judaism) that I am aware of accept the evidence of Darwinian evolution by natural selection, it’s not clear to me you have even thought through the premise of your question.

12 Jameson July 4, 2011 at 12:28 pm

“Most people unthinkingly assume a positive correlation, but why?”

What is the evidence for this assertion? On the contrary, I would conjecture that the majority of our culture views experiencing pain as passe and will do anything to suppress it if possible.

Honestly, Dawkins should know better than to think we can consciously decide the optimal decision at each moment, as modern neuroscience completely obliterates this idea.

13 UserGoogol July 4, 2011 at 6:07 pm

If you click he’s pretty explicit that he means across species lines. People tend to assume that, say, humans feel pain more than moneys which feel more pain than cows, which feel more pain than slugs. Dawkins’ line of reasoning would imply the opposite direction. But within a species the pattern would tend to break down, since you’re talking about small tweaks here or there rather than massive differences in the structure of organisms. An exceptionally intelligent or exceptionally unintelligent human is going to have most of the rest of their genes like the rest of humanity.

14 dirk July 4, 2011 at 12:59 pm

More vs. less intelligent may be the wrong dichotomy. More vs. less sentient sounds more correct to me. Greater sentience leads to a more complex network of desires and fears. A slug, for instance, likely gets by with a relatively small set of instincts and reflexes compared to humans. A slug is probably not at risk of over-philosophizing the virtues of bravery over cowardice. Moreover, if one theoretically accepts that less sentient creatures can experience equal or more pain than more sentient creatures, one then has to wonder if they also experience equal pleasure. Then one should question what subtleties of pain and pleasure they might experience. Does a slug suffer as I do when a Cold Play song comes on while it’s trying to eat dinner? Does it feel waves of despair whenever Ayn Rand is invoked?

15 unblinkered July 6, 2011 at 12:59 am

We need like buttons Tyler

16 Alex Godofsky July 4, 2011 at 1:07 pm

Why do we think that “levels” of pain in different species are commensurable?

17 Robert Kwasny July 4, 2011 at 1:36 pm

I would argue something else. Intelligent species might experience more pain specifically because they are able to figure out what’s good for them. A good thing to do is often not the easy thing to do. Thus, by doing what’s good for us (studying, running, diet etc.) we inflict more pain upon ourselves but end up being better off than less clever species (or less clever people, if we look only at human race).

Actually, I would take it one step further. Clever ones accept short-term pain in exchange for long-term benefit.

18 dirk July 4, 2011 at 1:58 pm

Yeah, we’ve actually evolved to the point that avoiding short term pleasure and enduring short term pain is often the best strategy for survival. Any other species have to do that?

Or is our culture simply wrong on that theory whereas Henry Miller was right?

19 Dan July 5, 2011 at 9:21 am

Yes. Any species where the parents invest large amounts of time and energy raising their young. Wouldn’t the hawk prefer to spend his days just lounging about, rather than constantly hunting to feed his ravenous fledglings? You can go pretty far down the evolutionary tree (frogs, fish, insects) and find self-sacrifice for the care of the young is a common survival strategy.

20 Rahul July 4, 2011 at 2:01 pm

What about within the human species alone? Do higher IQ people have a lower pain threshold or higher? That should be empirically testable.

21 FYI July 4, 2011 at 4:38 pm

I’d think that the relationship is inverse: higher sensitivity to pain will create the environment for a higher IQ person. You can kind of see this in our day to day life: individuals with higher pain threashold will get involved in risky/more physically challenging activities while the other side of the spectrum will be involved in more intellectual activies.

22 Alex Hoopes July 4, 2011 at 5:01 pm

I feel its wrong to think about this in terms of “why do we feel pain instead of just a red flag”, which implies that we evolve traits for specific reasons. We mutate randomly, and if the mutation is beneficial and helps a creature survive and procreate, it generally sticks around in the population.

A creature evolved to feel pain, and so succeeded in avoiding danger and injury, giving it the opportunity to make babies, which were also more able to avoid danger and injury that similar creatures, and so on and so forth. It does not matter whether pain is the optimal solution or not. It is the best solution that has thus far entered the gene pool.

23 Bellisaurius July 4, 2011 at 5:01 pm

It looks like there is a study between pain sensitivity and IQ is out there: Amongst mice anyways.

24 TallDave July 4, 2011 at 5:45 pm

I don’t think intelligence enters into it as much as aggression. Testosterone confers considerable ability to ignore pain.

I would expect no correlation between sensitivity to pain and intelligence.

25 Laserlight July 4, 2011 at 6:57 pm

“we are capable of intelligently working out what is good for us”.
Which is why all the tobacco companies and meth labs are out of business, drunk driving laws are unnecessary, nobody fights wars anymore, and divorces are a thing of the past.

26 Faze July 4, 2011 at 7:00 pm

Testosterone confers considerable ability to ignore pain.

American Indians must have had heaps of this testosterone you speak of, their ability to withstand pain being remarked upon by many observers from the 16th through 19th centuries, including Jesuits who witnessed the nonchalance of Indian prisoners being slowly flayed and burned alive by rival tribes – taunting their torturers with the equivalent of “that the best you got?”, and frontiersmen who viewed the Sun Dance ritual, wherein Indian males hung suspended from wooden rods piercing their pecs, sometimes for whole nights, without so much as a whimper. See Evan S. Connell’s “Son of Morning Star” for other examples that will make you writhe.

27 Rahul July 4, 2011 at 9:08 pm

With a lot of those tales it is hard to know when it was just explorers trying to outdo each other with fantastic stories.

28 Bill Jackson July 6, 2011 at 8:14 pm

On the torture rituals of certain native American tribes, the history is very thoroughly documented. No fantastic stories required. You seem to be missing, or unwilling to consider, the fact that people are physically capable of withstanding incredibly more pain that we would think possible. But it’s an important question. How is it possible?
How much of our pain is self-induced by our own perceptions? What level of self-control of pain is possible for us regular folks if or when we need it?
And if pain response is largely psychological, do we teach our children to be overly sensitive to pain when we treat owies as disasters?

Another related question. Sociopaths tend to have high pain tolerance. If pain is exaggerated by our attitude toward it, then this might be due to their having a diminished awareness of cause and effect. *IF* that’s the case, then anyone should be able to develop the same tolerance.

29 Henrico otto July 4, 2011 at 7:12 pm

Maybe it works the other way. A slug is not in danger of overriding a pain signal with some idea of what is good, so mild pain should suffice. Given the fragility of human reasoning we want it to override certain decision only where we’re really sure, intense pain is there to make us think twice about certain overrides. A slug can’t think twice so no need for a lot of pain.

30 Kinch July 5, 2011 at 3:37 am

Henrico makes an excellent point. The direction of this is not at all clear. In fact, I would guess that typical intuition is that less complex decision making organisms suffer less pain, and feel less pleasure.

For my part, it is unclear to me how one could possibly try to estimate this – any kind of behavior outcome (how much pain before abandoning food etc.) would fail because of possible differences in the “hunger” signal etc.

31 J Thomas July 4, 2011 at 7:48 pm

People talk as if pain is mainly a negative reinforcer. In that context, maybe super-smart people shouldn’t need to be whipped into doing the right thing because they’re smart enough to see ahead of time that they’ll get a whipping if they don’t.

But maybe pain provides an estimate of damage. Not so much “Whatever you did, don’t do it again” as “These are the resources you can’t depend on until they’ve healed”.

Pain goes through the thalamus and you can definitely learn to judge it with great sensitivity or to ignore it. The thalamus learns to present effective reports, and neurological damage to it can result in men growing beards to avoid the exquisite pain of shaving, etc.

Probably, the more important it is to get good damage results, the more sophisticated your mechanisms to deal with pain. So who is it who gets damaged a lot and needs to assess that damage?

32 bbartlog July 5, 2011 at 12:25 am

Richard Dawkins assumes that most people would make some sort of ‘right choices’, using rationality, even in the absence of pain. So like many smart people I know he subscribes to the delusion that the useful stuff people do is a result of some overarching Apollonian reason, rather than a remarkable ensemble of primate drives. I don’t think he understands human psychology well enough to analyze the situation in a useful way.
Anyway, one would first have to make the case that perception of pain between different creatures is commensurable. I think this is a much harder argument to make than the fairly straightforward one for comparing mental abilities.

33 Dan July 5, 2011 at 9:00 am

“…because we are capable of intelligently working out what is good for us, and what damaging events to avoid?” Thanks. I hadn’t had that good a a belly laugh in a long time.

34 C July 5, 2011 at 10:12 am

I still like Joseph Heller’s take on pain – From “Catch 22”

“And don’t tell me God works in mysterious ways,” Yossarian continued, hurtling on over her objection. “There’s nothing so mysterious about it. He’s not working at all. He’s playing. Or else, He’s forgotten all about us. That’s the kind of God you people talk about – a country bumpkin, a clumsy, bungling, brainless, conceited, uncouth hayseed. Good God, how much reverence can you have for a supreme being who finds it necessary to include such phenomena as phlegm and tooth decay in His divine system of creation? What in the world was running through that warped, evil, scatological mind of His when he robbed old people of their power to control their bowel movements? Why in the world did He ever create pain?”
“Pain?” Lieutenant Schiesskopf’s wife pounced upon the word victoriously. “Pain is a useful symptom. Pain is a warning to us about bodily dangers.”

“And who created the dangers?” Yossarian demanded, He laughed caustically. “Oh, He was really being charitable to us when He gave us pain! Why couldn’t He have used a doorbell instead to notify us, or one of His celestial choirs? Or a system of blue-and-red neon tubes right in the middle of each person’s forehead? Any jukebox manufacturer worth his salt could have done that. Why couldn’t He?”

“People would certainly look silly walking around with red neon tubes in the middle of their foreheads.”

“They certainly look beautiful now writhing in agony or stupified with morphine, don’t they? What a colossal, immortal blunderer! When you consider the opportunity and power he had to really do a job, and then look at the stupid ugly little mess He made of it instead, His sheer incompetence is almost staggering. It’s obvious. He never met a payroll. Why, no self-respecting businessman would hire a bungler like Him as even a shipping clerk!”

35 Cyrus July 5, 2011 at 10:49 am

Counter-speculation: the more intelligent species accures more survival benefit from pain and so has developed a greater capacity to feel it. The less intelligent species has less capacity to figure out what it needs to do differently, and do differently now, to prevent whatever has injured it from becoming deadly. If it gains minimal survival benefit from pain, resources spent in developing the capacity to feel it are wasted.

We can play at evolutionary just-so stories all day and learn nothing.

36 techreseller July 5, 2011 at 12:10 pm

Earlier someone said that people will low pain thresholds will tend towards intellectual pursuits and those with high pain thresholds will tend towards physical pursuits. Horse Hockey. I know plenty of very smart people with very high pain thresholds that are involved in the higher intelligence career fields. And I know plenty of not so bright people that have low pain thresholds that are involved in physical careers because that is all that their IQ will allow them.

I have an IQ well above 140 and have a very high pain threshold. My physical therapist just last week told me that most of her patients are screaming in pain when she stretches them to the point where she is stretching me. I in a calm voice told her I can take the pain. Of course being able to take the pain led to the injuries that require the physical therapy.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: