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[The following passage is from Paul Brand’s Pain: The Gift Nobody Wants, 1988. The son of English missionaries working in India, Brand went on to become a surgeon who developed new, innovative techniques for hand surgery. He also revolutionized our understanding of leprosy: the disfigurement and the loss of limbs is caused by the lack of respect for the body that results from the condition of painlessness (which is caused by the disease) and not because the disease causes the flesh to become “non-healing” or to change in any way.]

Pain is unique among sensations. Other senses tend to habituate, or lessen over time: the strongest cheeses seem virtually odourless after eight minutes; touch sensors adjust quickly to coarse clothing; an absent-minded professor searches in vain for his glasses, no longer feeling their weight on his head. In contrast, pain sensors do not habituate, but report incessantly to the conscious brain as long as danger remains. A bullet penetrates for a second and exits; the resulting pain may linger a year or more.

Oddly, though, this sensation that eclipses all others is hardest to remember once it fades. How many women have sworn after a difficult childbirth, “Never again will I go through that”? How many receive the news of another pregnancy with joy? I can close my eyes and summon up a constellation of scenes and faces from the past. Through sheer mental effort I can nearly replicate the smell of an Indian village or the taste of chicken curry. I can mentally replay familiar motifs from hymns, symphonies, and popular songs. But only weakly can I recall excruciating pain. Gallbladder attacks, agony from a ruptured disc, an airplane crash—my memories come to me stripped of the unpleasantness.

All these characteristics of pain serve its ultimate end: to galvanize the entire body. Pain shrinks time to the present moment. There is no need for the sensation to linger once the danger has passed, and it dare not habituate while danger remains. What matters to the pain system is that you feel miserable enough to stop whatever you’re doing and pay attention right now.

In the words of Elaine Scarry, pain “unmakes a person’s world.” Try carrying on a casual conversation with a woman in the final stages of childbirth, she suggests. Pain can overrule the values we cherish most, a fact which torturers know all too well: they use physical pain to wrench from a person information which a moment before he had held precious or even sacred. Few can transcend the urgency of physical pain—and this is its intent, precisely.

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