Clever Apes: Show me where it hurts

November 29, 2010

By Gabriel Spitzer

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Pain may be the most immediate and undeniable of human experiences. And yet it’s not obvious what it is, or where it comes from. Aristotle thought pain was basically an emotion, located in the heart. Ancient Egyptian physicians argued pain was more of a sensation, and nudged its source up to the brain. By the 19th century, science was starting to get the hang of the nervous system, and proposed there were essentially “pain organs” that existed to convey pain signals from the body -- say, your stubbed toe -- to the mind. (Learn more about historical theories about pain)

These days, scientists understand pain to involve all that stuff – emotions, nerves, the mind – all at once. It’s a complex experience, giving rise to pain in limbs that aren’t there anymore, to changes in brain circuitry and strange, super-senses, and even to subtle, almost lyrical characteristics in something as nasty as a bee sting.

Pain has become a kind of portal into the inner life of the body and mind. In this installment of "Clever Apes", we took a look inside. Subscribe to the "Clever Apes" podcast.

Music Button: To Rococo Rot, "Working Against Time", from the CD Speculation, (Domino)