Memories of Physical and Emotional Pain

I once was referred to a neurological specialist who, the referring specialist doctor said, would attempt to “replicate the pain” I had earlier felt in my neck and shoulder. Instantly, I decided against accepting the referral because I did not want to feel that pain again. The intent, of course, was to determine the underlying cause of the pain. But I was satisfied that the pain that had caused me to see the referring specialist had dissipated. I had no interest in learning whether it could be resurrected. Frankly, I was afraid it could be brought to life again but could not be killed. So I opted to hope for the best. Fortunately, that decision worked for a good eight or ten years before a similar pain returned on its own, without being “replicated” by a specialist.

When a similar pain occurred again, only then did my recollection of the original agony begin to approximate my experience so many years before. No matter how much I might have wanted to remember with precision the way that first pain felt (though I think I’d rather forget), I could not do it. Physical memories are like low-resolution snapshots taken with old cameras, their lenses smeared with soot and dust. They don’t capture reality for later replay. They approximate an experience, but lack true clarity and precision. And they are sometimes augmented or diminished by wishes or biases. They are not real; they are the products of the imagination, trained to paint a new portrait of an old experience, without the benefit of sight or touch.

If a person has ever experienced excruciating pain, I would argue that he or she simply cannot replicate it through memory. The person can’t feel the same agony felt when the pain was real. That awful pain refuses to have its photograph taken for physical replay.

I think memories of mental anguish, on the other hand, can be recorded with absolute fidelity, the equivalent of the very best, most precise Hasselblad camera in the hands of a highly experienced photographer. Two experiences from my younger years convince me of this. When I was in college—the first full semester after I began early, in summer school—I felt more lonely than I had ever felt before. It was a profound, debilitating, loneliness. I lacked the social skills to meet people and develop friendships. The isolation I felt was almost too much for me to bear. I considered suicide, thinking the only way I could escape the pain of loneliness was to take my life. I remember that sense of profound loneliness today. When that memory finds its way to the surface of my consciousness, the pain is just as acute as it was then, though now it is thankfully a memory instead of an ongoing experience.

Another experience was my first “true love.” I thought I had found my soul mate for life. Our relationship lasted for quite some time, but the time came when she decided it was over. I fought the decision, as if fighting it could have changed it. The pain of that ending was almost as excruciating as the profound loneliness. I can feel the memory of it today, just as acutely; unexpected abandonment by someone least likely to intentionally walk away, knowing how devastatingly painful it would be. A punch in the emotional gut so hard it could forever change the way a person feels about relationships.

I’ve often wondered why painful emotional memories can surface with almost exactly the same degree of mental agony as the original, while physical memories of pain never replicate the original experience. The closest I can come to explaining it, without exploring what people with expertise in human memory and human experience of pain have to say about it, is that mental pain and physical pain are utterly different beasts. While they both may involve physical changes in the body’s chemistry or electrical impulses, they must be fundamentally different. And perhaps physical pain reflects the potential of mortal danger, while mental pain reflects only emotional distress.

One of these days, I’m going to do more than ruminate and craft unsupported theories; I’m going to actually read results of research into the differences between emotional and physical pain. I’m almost certain such research must have been conducted and reported. And it’s possibly quite easy to find. One need only look. Maybe.


About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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