The Context of Pain

Radio Lab

I have an addiction to podcasts.  Hey, what better than public radio without commercials (or even worse, depressing news) *and* on my own timeline.  It’s all that and a bag of chips.  So the other day I caught a rebroadcast of Radio Lab entitled, “Placebo”.  Great episode, check it out.  One theory their guest Dr. Daniel Carr suggests is that pain is dependent upon context, which got me to thinking.  I’m constantly asked “Do tattoos hurt?”  And my response is always the same, “The experience is different for everyone”.  But why?

It’s about context.  Speaking for myself, I have an attitude problem when it comes to going to the doctor.  I’m not a happy patient.  Yet I have a high pain tolerance and a stoic nature.  Nine years ago I nearly lost two finger tips in a power tool accident and I was one hurtin’ unit over the next four hours in the ER.  Yet, I’ve enthusiastically endured multiple eight hour sessions of tattooing, and have participated in ritualistic piercing.

The pain we feel isn’t about the pain.  It’s about the story that comes with the pain.  Our stories are filtering the pain even before it’s felt, for better or worse.  Consider the context of “What am I losing with this pain?”  …As compared with, “What have I to gain from this pain?”

In the context of tattooing, when you believe (or know) that something good is coming of your pain, that this is your story being born on your skin… that this is your healing in order to move forward… then the story you have woven for yourself makes all the difference in your ability to process and sit with the level of discomfort you physically and psychologically feel.

“Scientists currently view our entire identity as something we construct from one second to the next. You are the unfolding of an ongoing narrative.  Not just a narrative in words, but touch… odor…  We use all of these inputs to generate the next frame from the last frame in our story.”
~ Dr. Daniel Carr