Does consciousness increase our pain? Is suffering possible with only sensory perception?
Let’s imagine an animal capable of feeling pain just like us, but otherwise devoid of consciousness, with neither self-awareness nor memory — incapable of sensing the passage of time, let alone reflecting on the fact that it is feeling pain, or adding feelings of misery and dejection to its misfortune. The pain it would feel could surely be acute, but that would be about it. Because it would have no subjective experiences beyond its sensory perceptions, it would experience every nanosecond of pain practically as independent from the previous one and the next, as a discrete unit of pain felt only in the moment. It would experience nothing but the present, and since the present is so infinitesimally small, so ephemeral as to be almost nonexistent, perhaps we could conclude that its suffering would be so fleeting as to be essentially not real.
Think about a pain scale from 1 to 10, where 1 is almost no pain and 10 is excruciating pain. You need surgery, and the doctor tells you that you have two options. The first one requires you to be awake for a full hour, during which you’ll experience an 8 on the pain scale. The second one involves five hours, every millisecond of which you’ll feel a 10 on the pain scale, but you’ll forget each millisecond as it passes. Every millisecond will be experienced as the only one, and at the end of the operation you’ll have no memory of what you went through. I believe most people would choose the second option — I would. With option 2 it almost feels as if we wouldn’t suffer at all! Its result might approximate the experience of our hypothetical animal with only primary or sensory consciousness.
Contrary to such an animal, a human will add fear, anxiety, worry, anger, self-commiseration and more to sensations of pain, which will render his experience far more painful than the physical pain itself. It is the story that we tell ourselves, as beings endowed with a high level of consciousness, that greatly contributes to how we experience pain.
Picture a long, dismal, bitterly cold winter, for example. What makes it unbearable is not really the temporary cold that we feel when we are outside, but the awareness that it’s been weeks already without respite and that week after unremitting week of miserable weather lies ahead of us. Maybe we could train ourselves to try to focus on the disagreeable sensation of coldness and nothing else, and thus, rid of all the psychological add-ons, manage to diminish our suffering.
There may be a good evolutionary reason for the additional distress that our ruminations provoke. To stick with the example of unending woeful wintry weather, a few millennia ago such an environment would have posed a considerable risk to our survival. If we had just felt the cold moment to moment, we might have just carried on living as best we could, oblivious to past and future dangers, and died as a result. That extra discomfort added by our higher-order consciousness might have prompted us to migrate to a region with a milder climate, thus improving our livelihood. In other words, this supplemental psychological suffering characteristic of humans is there for a good reason: as useful as the more direct physical pain for keeping us safe.
Now, although the self-narratives that accompany our sensations of pain for the most part increase our suffering, under certain circumstances they may actually mitigate it. An act of heroic self-sacrifice, for example, may give our suffering meaning or a sense of purpose. Thanks to that meaning, derived from considering the pain worthy of a goal that we judge glorious, noble or stirring, we may well gain the fortitude to better withstand it.
What about pleasure? Can it be likewise enhanced by our conscious thoughts? Experience clearly shows that’s often the case. We can increase our happiness by eagerly anticipating a pleasant experience, by reflecting on how fortunate we are to have access to it, and by enjoying it retrospectively, playing and replaying it in our memory. And just as we may well succeed in developing habits of mind that help us to better handle painful situations, we could similarly enhance our well-being by more deliberately pondering the good in our life, for example by practicing gratitude, as studies have shown.