What makes pain or discomfort = bad?


So when you really need to go to the bathroom, your nerves and pressure points send your brain a signal saying this is uncomfortable and bad. But what causes that uncomfortable feeling in your mind? If it’s all just chemicals in your brain, how can a chemical be felt as a “bad feeling”?

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Your brain interprets different chemicals to mean different things. It can then feel things based on how it’s “trained”, either consciously or by instinct.

Taking your example, your bodily wastes are toxic byproducts of you being alive. Failure to remove those wastes regularly will cause them to build up in your body, potentially leading to illness. In long distant history, the animals that ignored their bladders/colons got sick more often and died more often than those who interpreted those signals as “uncomfortable” or “bad.” So their brain’s raining, what we call instinct, carried over to their offspring, who passed it on to their offspring, and so forth.

You can train yourself to overcome it or ignore it. Babies and toddlers will pee whenever they feel the need, while you know that you can hold it until you are in a more appropriate environment; same for house training puppies and dogs.

If you think about the purpose of pain things make a little more sense. Pain is just your body saying, “pay attention here, something is going wrong”. The pain itself is uncomfortable because it is the signal to say you need to do something so don’t get comfortable.

Now why it feels the way it feels is a good question that may not be answerable. It is the same question as to why sound waves feel like sounds and light waves feel like images. At the end of the day, different (physical/sensory) feelings are just different types of sensory systems that send different types of signals (in the way of neurotransmitters and activation pattens). Each sensation is given by a different type of nerve that “transduces” information in the environment into signals our brain understands. Vision is transduced by photoreceptors (rods/cones). Sound is transduced by hair follicles arranged on a membrane in the ear. Pain is transduced by nociceptors. Sharp and dull pains come from different types of nociceptors.

Now the above is what I know from being a grad student in cognitive neuroscience. Below is something that I read snippets about some time in the past and haven’t fact checked. (So take it with a grain of salt).

There are some forms of meditation and mindfulness that focus on focusing on pain. Really dissecting the feeling and letting it wash over you. The idea is to disassociate your personhood from the message the pain is giving you. (Next time you get a charlie horse/foot cramp instead of freaking out you can try really concentrating on the pain. I’ve found it becomes much more bearable and almost interesting). There are some cases/reports of that’s what let some people do surgery on themselves or the cases of monks who set themselves on fire without screaming. This fits with the above notion that pain is just saying, “pay attention to me” in that if you are paying attention the need for pain is much less.