Flappers, Gobies, and the Perception of Pain

Climber hands
Pain isn’t absolute; it is increased or diminished by context. Photo: Leici Hendrix.

“If my hands felt this way because they were burned, it would be really upsetting,” she said. “But because they feel like this from climbing hard, I kind of like it. Is that weird?”

Just back from a long session at the climbing gym, my wife held out her hands, palm up, to display skin worn raw from the sandpapery texture of the plastic holds. The callus just below her knuckle had grown so pronounced that she could no longer squeeze her wedding ring over it. Her fingers were tattered and torn, but she presented them with pride.

I didn’t think it was weird. After all, what athlete hasn’t gotten a sense of satisfaction from the pain of hard work? We climbers nearly always return home with some abrasion or other: scraped knees and elbows and ankle bones, hands covered with gobies from being jammed into cracks, bloody flappers on our fingers were rough stone caught soft skin and didn’t let go…

While these injuries might sound bad to an outsider, they are no less than badges of honor, satisfying reminders that we have, for a time at least, embraced our physicality without holding back. Like the soreness from a hard bike ride up a canyon or long day spent skinning up and skiing down, these wounds are the result of passion and dedication, and the associated pain is transformed for it.

The same week my wife made her observation, I heard via Radiolab about a medical study from 1956 called “Relationship of Significance of Wound to Pain Experienced,” which found that soldiers wounded in battle tended to experience less severe pain than civilians who suffered comparable injuries. The reason, the study suggested, wasn’t that soldiers are tougher than everyone else, but that their injuries meant something different to them.

For a soldier in WWII, a gunshot wound might mean a trip home, a way back to the things he loved. For a civilian, the same wound carried little upside: would he be able to work? Would insurance cover the medical bills? How would the injury affect his family? Civilians with gunshot wounds experienced pain more profoundly, amplified as it was by mental anguish, and asked for more painkillers as a result.

“The pain that you feel when you’re hit by the bullet is not just about the bullet,” explains Robert Krulwich in the Radiolab episode titled “Placebo.” “It’s just as much about the story that comes with the bullet.”

Another example of this: have you ever noticed the way professional athletes respond to serious injury, like a torn ACL or badly sprained ankle? The pain visibly grips their bodies and contorts their faces as they lie on the field or the court. Clearly, it hurts like hell, but I think what we’re seeing is the reaction to the frightening implications of such an injury. “For many athletes, their sport is their identity. An injury that takes them out of the game can feel like the end of the world,” wrote a blogger on the topic.

The decades-old study and my wife’s observation went hand in hand. Pain, like so many of the things we experience, is as much in the mind as in the body. When we look at our pain from one angle, it is only pain, only a bad thing. When we come at it from another direction, it becomes a sign of dedication or a chance to grow. Taking control of our inner perception of things, rather than seeking merely to control things themselves, is among the biggest challenges we face in this life, but also, I think, among the most important.

 

You haven’t heard of Jonah Lehrer?!

Jonah Lehrer
Photo: Guido Vitti, via Wired online

If you haven’t heard of Jonah Lehrer, you are lucky. Lucky because you get to discover him for the first time. Very exciting.

Lehrer, not yet thirty years old, is a master at snatching ideas from the modern world’s vast information flow and piecing them together in interesting ways. His topics typically center around the science of the brain and its relationship to our behavior and psychology. Like Malcolm Gladwell, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, and Michael Pollan, he makes very complex things seem simple, almost intuitive. And yet his ideas are always surprising.

Precociously he’s a contributing editor for Wired, a regular contributor to The New Yorker and Radiolab (and if you haven’t heard of Radiolab yet, today is really your lucky day), as well of the author of three cool books.

For a taste of his style, here’s a video of him speaking at Oregon’s Williamette University: