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If brains could talk: remembering how pain happens

 •  • by Paul Ingraham
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Weekly nuggets of pain science news and insight, usually 100-300 words, with the occasional longer post. The blog is the “director’s commentary” on the core content of a library of major articles and books about common painful problems and popular treatments. See the blog archives or updates for the whole site.

Pets are selected both naturally and artificially for snack hyper-vigilance. Hoomans are a good source of food. When we deliver the goods, our pets care about the context in which it happened way more than we do: every nuance is remembered, many subtle sensory details we are completely oblivious to.

Like the spot you were standing in when it happened.


Thanks to artist Jimmy Craig of for granting permission to use this perfect, poignant illustration of snack hypervigilance.

They remember… and then they watch for the signs! Intensely! You never know how a snack will happen, but it’s most likely to happen much like it has before.

Like pain! You can see where this is going.

How our brains are like that cat

Our animal brains do this too, obsessively filing away every detail they can about the circumstances of rewards… and threats. Definitely threats, too. If brains could talk, they would regale us with all the absurdly specific and subtle details they remember about past threats and rewards. It’s probably most of what’s going on under the hood for most animals, most of the time.

When something hurts a lot, our brains pay close attention to how it happened, and then we spend a long time “watching for the signs.” And yet, weirdly, we are mostly oblivious to those signs. Our conscious minds are filled with all kinds of wonders and nonsense. But our brains? Our brains are as focused as that cat:

“Remember when I stood in that exact way and I was in terrible pain?” the brain asks. The mind is barely even paying attention.

“I do,” says brain, and of course it does. Pain is most likely to happen much like it has before, and our brains know it even when we don’t. How much are we puppets of threat hyper-vigilance? Is it part of the mechanics of how pain works? One natural next step for this line of thinking is addressed by one of my more recent articles:

Chronic Pain as a Conditioned Behaviour — If pain can be learned, can it be unlearned? (3,500 words, 15-min read)

PainSci Member Login » Submit your email to unlock member content. If you can’t remember/access your registration email, please contact me. ~ Paul Ingraham, PainSci Publisher