Detailed guides to painful problems, treatments & more

Sensation vs perception vs who cares

 •  • by Paul Ingraham
Get posts in your inbox:
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.

So, is pain a “sensation” and/or a “perception”? There’s a long-running debate/argument about this among pain science dorks and wonks on social media. The argument isn’t just about sensation versus perception, but also about whether it matters. Todd Hargrove has weighed in with a new post, in which he tries to end the debate because he’s sick to death of it:

I tried for years not to write this post and ultimately failed. I’m sorry.

I don’t know what I like better: that he wrote it, or that he apologized for writing it. The whole thing has has gotten really tedious, and many people will groan when they see this zombie topic shambling their way yet again. Todd’s summary (which I entirely agree with):

  1. The debate is not substantive or of practical import. It does not involve disagreements about pain physiology, what causes pain, or how pain should be treated. Instead, the debate is semantic.
  2. The debate is easily resolved by simply looking at textbooks that describe how the terms sensation and perception are conventionally defined and used.
  3. These textbooks make clear that it is completely appropriate to refer to pain as a perception, and it doesn’t make much sense to say that pain is a sensation but not a perception.
  4. In any event, it doesn’t matter that much how we use these words in practice, because they are inherently fuzzy and often used interchangeably.

Good food for thought? More like food for not thinking about it ever again. But if you want to know about sensation and perception… he covers that too. Briefly. Which is all it ever needed.