Compare and contrast: Last Saturday I went to a friend’s birthday party. I had a few beers and got home around 1:30. I slept until 5:30, then woke with a pounding head. I was awake until 7:30 when I was sick. The pain was sharp, located in a precise spot just at the base of my skull, and impervious to Paracetomol. The usual “never again” thoughts passed through my head. Now when I’d had the drinks (although they were stronger than I’d anticipated) I knew that a certain quantity would be enough to have this effect the next day. But somehow that’s never enough to stop you.

Then yesterday I took my kids for vaccinations in anticipation of our trip to Sri Lanka at the end of December. One of them in particular was very upset about the idea of a small amount of brief pain, even knowing that it would be over in a matter of seconds. The suffering, at least in terms of physical pain, was much less than mine, and yet the emotional stress was that much greater. It’s like the opposite of those old “delayed gratification” experiments. We’re more upset at the idea of a little pain right now than the strong possibility of maybe even greater pain in the future (even if only a few hours in the future).


4 thoughts on “Antici-pain-tion

  1. Erik R. November 25, 2014 / 10:15 am

    The pop psychology author, Dan Ariely, himself a severe burn victim, has done a lot of research into pain perception, specifically that of past and future pain. I highly recommend his books.

    One of the most fascinating results was from an experiment where patients were undergoing a colonoscopy, which apparently has some painful parts and some not-so-painful parts. They had the patients reporting their “present” pain levels throughout the entire experiment. However, those that had the more painful part at the end of the procedure then rated the entire procedure as being more painful than the ones that had had the pain earlier. Interesting and good for doctors to know, but what really blew my mind was when he asked the question, “What if the memory of past pain, not the present pain itself, is the important thing that we should minimize? If you had a way to do a procedure that was extremely painful, but would be remembered as not so painful, or one that was less painful but would be remembered as more painful, which should you choose?” Thought provoking.

    Those “never again” thoughts always amuse me. They seem to have such conviction in the moment.


    • simonlitton November 25, 2014 / 11:05 am

      Presumably he also looked into (as it were) women in labour? Because their memory of the pain of childbirth tends to be a lot less than the pain they seem to experience in the moment.

      Although obviously that pales into insignificance compared to my hangover.


      • Erik R. November 25, 2014 / 11:38 am

        Yep. Can’t study pain without examining the mother of all pains, so to speak.

        Good save, by the way.


  2. jellyjules November 26, 2014 / 9:04 pm

    Anyone who says they forget the pain of childbirth is either:
    1. a man
    2. a liar
    3. very fortunate indeed.

    I remember it, and it was horrid. Perhaps not as bad as your hangover, but horrid nonetheless.


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