Thursday 30 September 2021

The Impossibility of Imagining Pain

In today's post Paul Noordhof discusses the possibility of imagining pain, summarising a paper, Explaining impossible and possible imaginings of pain, that appears open access in a forum dedicated to responses to Jennifer Radden's article, Imagined and Delusional Pain, in Rivista internazionale di Filosofia e Psicologia. Noordhof's paper is an output of the AHRC Project Deluded by Experience, led by Ema Sullivan-Bissett at the University of Birmingham. 

Paul Noordhof

One form of imagining has a content that is like our sensory experiences and bodily sensations. For example, if I’m asked how many windows the front of my mother’s house has, I might answer by imagining the house as if I am looking at it. Equally, we can imagine our hand being warmed by a close-by fire. In a recent paper, inspired and responding to a paper by Jennifer Radden entitled ‘Imagined and Delusional Pain’, I considered the question of whether it is possible to imagine a pain in the same way. People vary in their answer to this question but it seems particularly difficult to imagine the hurtfulness of pain (which may be a good thing). Radden concludes that it is impossible. If so, the question is why? and what implications may this have for understanding some kinds of mental disorder?

I don’t follow Radden all the way. I argue that it is possible to imagine pains indirectly by imagining circumstances in which they arise but agree with her that it is, generally, impossible to imagine pains directly. This is because, I claim, the representation of something as hurtful is due to our disposition to respond aversively to it and this disposition is undermined by our act of imagining. In a typical philosophical inversion, my suggestion is that we experiencing something as hurting because we are disposed to respond aversively to it rather than are disposed to respond aversively to it because it is hurting. Our act of imagining something undermines the disposition in question in a way that bears comparison to the way we find it hard to tickle ourselves. Our control over the content of our imaginings removes the sense of something happening to us and the anxiety we might feel as a result both of which are characteristic of pain.

Radden’s investigation into the impossibility of imagining pain had the aim of establishing that subjects could not be depressed from imaginary pains or be deluded about the pains from which they suffered. My more moderate position allows for the following possibilities. First, a subject imagines pains as a result of imagining circumstances in which they would naturally occur. Second, either involuntarily or due to weakness of will, a subject may imagine threats to their body which, because of their anxiety, involve the disposition to respond aversively and so they imagine the hurt of the pain that would result. Think of the child crying that you are hurting them brushing their hair when your brush hasn’t even touched their hair yet.

Subjects suffering from monothematic delusions arrive at beliefs that try to make sense of their anomalous experiences. Active imaginings do not support beliefs in the same way since the subject is aware that they are responsible for the content of their imaginings. However, where control over their imaginings break down from weakness of will or involuntary imaginings, subjects are more susceptible to form beliefs in response to their content. This may include depression over the pain one experiences and delusions about the state of one’s health.

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