Why we need Pain

Scenario one: You get up in the morning. You crawl out of bed, stub your foot on the door on your way out, bang your elbow on a wall, fall down the stairs and, as you’re getting up, accidentally nick your finger on a sharp edge. No problem, though, so after wiping the blood away you stick some toast in the toaster, wait a few minutes (cutting your finger again on a knife) and retrieve the toast at the ding, noting the heat on your hand. And, perhaps, the burn marks.

Scenario two: You get up in the morning. You crawl out of bed, stub your foot on door on your way out, curse repeatedly and then take more care the rest of the way, because, by god, that first hit hurt. You remain otherwise uninjured and are careful with everything else.

The first scenario was bereft of pain. And though it might be a little extreme, you get the point: in the first scenario, you didn’t care about pain. So you didn’t bother to avoid harmful scenarios.

For most the threat of pain is enough to ward off troublesome situations. We don’t get into fights because we fear the sting of a punch and we shy away from high jumps just in case we land badly and hurt our legs. We don’t want to live with that horrid pain because it’s so distracting and annoying and, well, painful.

And that’s the whole point of pain. Despite what we may think pain is our friend: it lets us know that a given situation, or action, or whatever, is detrimental to our body. We thereafter learn to avoid that set of circumstances which elicited the pain in the first place, thereby avoiding any further physical damage. To live without pain is to risk ignoring severe injuries.

Pain prompts reaction. It forces us to pay attention to whatever’s affecting our body. Even if all we do is take note of the injury, we still at least know it’s there. Our pain receptors have done their job. If you didn’t feel pain, on the other hand, you could be subjecting your body to some terrible injuries and not even know it. Those unfortunate individuals who can’t feel pain often don’t live very long because they fail to notice and tend to injuries. Some die from something as simple as not turning in their sleep.

To be deprived of pain is to lose a vital element of survival. It teaches us what’s bad for our body and lets us know, in an immediate and unmistakable fashion, that we must avoid what hurt us in the future. There are few learning devices as horribly effective as pain, and though not many of us enjoy it, we all need it.