Where does pain happen?

Someone stubs her toe. Where is the pain? In her mind ... or in the toe? In a recent study, laypeople indicated that they thought the pain was in the toe. (Via Scientific American Mind)


  1. That totally makes sense to me.

    I mean, conceptually I know/think that pain is the brain responding to nerve cells in my toe or whatever going “OH WOW THERE’S DAMAGE DOWN HERE YO” but that’s not how it feels to me.  My toe hurts!

  2. This is similar to the article that said pink didn’t really exist, but was the mind interpreting the absence of visible light.

    Pain does not exist anywhere.  It is not a real thing.  You can’t touch it, grab it, see it, hear it, manipulate it, break it down into component parts.  It is a construct of our imagination to explain a physical experience.

    Therefore it can be anywhere we want to imagine it — because we are the ones imagining it.

  3. Interesting article, but I agree with the commenter in the original post that the wording of the first question sounds as if it’s asking whether the pain is a fabrication of the toe-stubber’s mind. If they asked people that question without framing it first, I’m not sure how valid the results are. 

  4. Ridiculous.

    When you wiggle your fingers, where is the wiggle? At the ends of your hands? Or in your mind?

    When a computer-controlled factory robot picks up a crate, where is the crate? In the robot’s hands? Or in the computer?

    Pain isn’t imaginary or “in your mind” at all. Pain is caused by nerve cells, responsible for sensing pain, getting damaged. You are experiencing that pain exactly as you experience the wiggling of your fingers.

    1. Well, actually, it only appears that way. Your nerve cells create electric impulses but it’s the brain that decides how to interpret them. 

      This is something a person can learn to control.

  5. I agree with the earlier posters that it is a somewhat misleading question. Where is the pain? Well, the pain is a result of the brain (in the head) sending pain signals (that appear to originate from the toe) due to impacting nerves (which are in the toe.) Not so simple an answer…

  6. The study is setting up some sort of mind/toe dualism. Your mind is your body/is partially your toe. If the phenomenal experience of stubbing your toe could be tied to a specific set of neurons, certainly the neurons in your toe would play as major a role as the neurons in your brain. Any philosopher worth their salt would recognize that phenomenal experiences can never be strictly separated from the body and the external world.

  7. It IS in you mind.  While the toe might be damaged, the qualia is in your mind.

    Take a fer instance:
    Rap the tips of your fingers hard on a table.  It hurts, and it stops almost immediately.
    Likewise, hit your toes on something.  Or better yet, watch someone do the same thing: They’ll moan, complain, and walk funny for weeks!  If you examine the toes, they’re not damaged, not broken, not even inflamed.

    So, next time you smash your bare foot into something, say a like curse, look at your feet.  If they’re not bleeding not broken, just say to yourself  “It only hurts in my head” and just go about your life normally (no, don’t limp).

    You’ll see, the pain will stop just as quickly as with your fingertips.

    1. That’s largely due to descending inhibition silencing signals from the peripheral nervous system. 

      This is not evidence that the actual pain effect is purely cortical, which is basically what you’re claiming. 

  8. Now we know how “ordinary people” think about pain. Another experiment would be to stomp on a philosopher’s foot and observe if they say, “Ouch, my mind!”

  9. If we inject an anesthetic into the sensory nerves between your toe and your brain, damaging the toe is painless.  Therefore pain is a perception:  an interpretation of sensory data by your brain.

  10. Pain is in our minds. Fakirs knew that already long ago, hence the mutilated body and the often bandaged head.

  11. It gets even more complicated than that. 
    Example Fibromyalgia/CFS.  The pain is neither in the head nor in the body parts hurting, it’s in the transmission lines in between, making the head feel the body was under attack. 
    I should know this.

  12. foolish discussion. Pain exists in all of the above. The brain is a part of the nervous system. Toe nerves are part of the nervous sysem. Nerves between the brain and toe nerves are part of the nervous system. All of these are inseperable from the entire body – everything is entangled. These myopic opinions, while perhaps in depth, are short sighted. When and how will we solve the most major problem in academia – the seperations between the different schools of thought and the short-sighted bickering and mental masturbation that ensues?

    1. They’re not inseparable at all.  We can anesthetize the brain into unconsciousness –> no pain.  We can interrupt nerve transmission by using a drug or cutting a sensory nerve –> no pain.  We can experience pain in an amputated limb that is obviously separable from the rest of the body.  We can modify pain by treating anxiety.  The theory that pain is a perception is backed by plenty of scientific data, and has given us generations of experience in successfully treating pain in real people.

      Ignorance might be a bigger problem than what you consider to be the shortcomings of academia.

  13. Seems like the problem would be that ‘pain’ wasn’t defined in the question, wouldn’t it? Are they asking people where the sensation of pain is experienced, or are they asking people where the physical damage is located, that the pain is reporting?
    After all, if you went in to the doctor and they asked you “Where does it hurt?” wouldn’t you expect them to answer that it’s their toe that hurts? Answering “It hurts in my brain” wouldn’t help at all, afterwards, even if you believe in would be a more ‘accurate’ answer.

    How about asking “You have a dream about stubbing your toe. Where is the pain?” Similarly, it seems from reading the answers re: siamese twins or two people stubbing their toe, it seems most people are interpreting questions about pain to be about actual damage causing the pain. So it’d be more accurate to say that most people, when not prompted by other data, assume pain to be caused by physical damage.

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