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Why do humans feel pain?

Mon, 18th May 2015

Kat Arney

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It has long been known that pain is necessary to avoid serious injury, but why do Brain Painhumans seem to get it worse than most animals? A new theory suggests it evolved stronger in people as a cry for help, as Max Sanderson explains... 

 Max: - So, the news piece I read was in the great New Scientist and it was by someone called Professor Barbara Finley and she was putting forward the argument as to why humans compared to our  primate cousins appear to have a heightened sense of pain. So, in evolutionary terms, pain is obviously very important to protect us from further damage and condition us to avoid certain situations, and also make other individuals aware that we need assistance. Itís this, that she sort of focused on and she talked about how her time in the field were spent around quite a lot of primates and she was also a bit baffled as to, these monkeys whoíd have caesarean sections and then within hours were sort of sitting up and climbing and playing. Having had two C-sections herself, it got her thinking that maybe humans unlike our monkey relatives have sort of evolved a mechanism whereby certain things such as giving birth, are deemed more painful for beneficial reasons. And so, she argued that these sort of heightened pain responses give us a sort of distinct advantage as humans that elicits a response from others, it means theyíll come and give us assistance. So, giving birth to a child in humans can be very, very dangerous and so by heightening our levels or our perceptions of pain on the whole, it means that we demand to either have a midwife or a family member there and it means that hopefully, the mother and the child both have bigger chance of surviving. I just thought it was fascinating. Anything to do with pain, I'm generally quite Ė I mean study of pain. Not pain in itself, the study of pain.

 Chris: - Come on Max, be honest. When we were chatting about this early, you said you're quite into pain. And then you sort of said, ďMaybe I should rephrase that.Ē

 Max: - I can't believe I did it again I sort of made a note not to say that, but no, I'm into the study of pain.. itís a hugely fascinating thing because pain in itself is something thatís completely created by our brain. Yes, there can be damage to a hand that you put on a hot stove in that sense, so it signals to the brain... but the pain in itself is something that we create as a reaction to that damage and so, itís highly sort of subjective.

 Chris: - I did interview a chap. It was a little while ago now, but Jeff Woods whoís a researcher in Cambridge and he published a paper describing the genetic reason why there are certain families of people who live Ė I think these ones lived in Pakistan and Bangladesh Ė who are incapable of feeling pain. They lack a gene which normally would be used by the pain system in the body to trigger nerve impulses and these people donít have those receptors on their nerves. So, they can't trigger these pain responses and so they can do horrible things to themselves, and they frequently do, and they donít feel a thing. Isnít that awful?

 Max: - Yeah and thatís the sort of nociceptors. It can be quite dangerous though because it means it doesnít give themselves time to heal.

 Kat: - Thanks very much. Thatís absolutely fascinating. You are listening to the Naked Scientists Q&A Special with me, Kat Arney.

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