Sunday, August 15, 2010

Feeling Less Pain

What a difference a few words make. It is far from being intuitively obvious, especially when we believe that we are independent, autonomous beings, but when you are feeling the pain of an injury, the degree of your pain will depend on whether or not another person has inflicted it intentionally.

To be brief, getting hit by someone who means it hurts more than getting hit by someone who doesn't mean it.Pain inflicted intentionally hurts more than pain inflicted accidentally.

The few words that make the difference: I didn't mean it.

Let's try to make this a little more complicated, and, hopefully, a lot more interesting.

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely reported the research on his blog. Link here. Test subjects received a series of electric shocks. Some of them were told that a human being was inflicting the shocks, thus that human intention was involved. The others were told that a computer was generating the shocks, thus, that there was no human intention involved.

The first subjects were induced to believe that the shocks were meaningful, that they represented a fellow human's feeling toward them. The second group was induced to believe that the shocks were being inflicted at random, thus that they did not represent anything about another human's feelings about them.

As you can imagine, those subjects who were told that the shocks were meaningful gestures felt more pain than than did those who believed that they had been accidental and meaningless.

Let's expand and reflect on some of the possible implications of this research. First, it seems to suggest that when you have been injured, your pain will depend on whether or not the person who has injured you has or has not meant it.

How does he let you know that he hurt you accidentally, thus that he did not really mean it? By apologizing, of course.

When he apologizes he is saying that, even though he is responsible for hurting you, he did not intend it. He was flailing his arms in a dramatic gesture, not knowing how close you were, and he hit you. When he apologizes, he is not denying that they were his arms. He is telling you that his action does not mean anything about your relationship.

If someone you had thought to be a friend drops a brick on your foot and does not apologize, that tells you that he meant it, and that he is willing to do it again. Even if, in his heart of hearts he did not mean it. His unwillingness to apologize trumps whatever is happening in his heart.

If he pretends that nothing has happened or that someone else is responsible then you would be correct to conclude that he is no longer your friend. That would surely cause you a certain quantity of mental anguish, which would aggravate the pain of the injury.

A person who shifts the blame is not only missing the opportunity to relieve your pain by performing the gesture that only the responsible party can perform-- telling that his act was not intentional-- but he is also allowing you to believe that the party that is truly responsible did mean it. Thus, he will have aggravated your pain.

But what about purely psychological pain? What is the role of apology in traumatic abuse, or even in everyday rudeness?

Surely, people suffer considerable mental anguish for having been abused. They also suffer some mental anguish for being insulted or treated rudely.

If we apply our principle here, when you suffer an indignity, you will feel less pain if you hear that the person inflicting the pain did not mean it, feels sorry for it, and promises never to do it again.

Whether you are dealing with major psychic trauma or everyday minor trauma the key to reducing the pain lies in whether or not you hear an apology.

If you do not hear an apology, you are obliged to protect yourself by reducing your contacts with the offending person.

If other people have such a decisive influence on how much pain we feel from the injuries they inflict, then why do so many of us still believe that we can reduce the pain of psychological injury by working with a therapist to discover its true meaning.

Doesn't this research tell us that introspection is especially worthless as a means to reducing psychological pain?

No introspective process is going to tell you whether or not the person who abused you meant it or not. What you really need is to hear an apology. 

What does it mean to make the trauma meaningful. Most therapists will say that it means folding the experience into a coherent narrative.

But doesn't that make the trauma a meaningful experience, by definition.  Stories have their own rules, and one of those rules is that they cannot function if pain or trauma or crime is merely an accident, is simply unintentional.

Making a trauma part of a narrative would then make it more of an intentional action and would cause you more pain.

Just in case you were wondering why this form of psychotherapy does not cure what ails you.

Resourceful therapists have therefore had to find other ways to diminish pain and suffering. Among them is empathy.

As you may know, I have been slightly dubious about the value of empathy. Feeling someone else's pain might easily tell that person that the pain is meaningful.

But it would also be fair to say that when you listen to someone recounting a painful experience, you might well be reducing the stigma associated with the pain.

Trauma isolates people; it makes them feel disconnected. If a therapist connects with a patient while listening to an expression of pain, the connection itself might reduce the pain, by reducing the stigmatizing effect of trauma.

After all, when we say that traumatic pain feel worse when it feels intentional, we are also saying that intentional pain hurts because it makes you feel that you have lost a friend.

I don't think that the important point is the therapist's ability to feel the patient's pain. After all, why should the patient feel that he has accomplished something when his therapist feels his pain.

I prefer to think that what is being covered by this concept of empathy is the therapist's ability to connect with the patient despite the fact that he has heard the patient's worst.

Clearly, in Freud-influenced therapies, where therapists are strictly forbidden to connect with their  patients, empathy would be largely ineffective as balm for the soul.

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