Letters & Essays
Founders of the IPR
“State education should be abolished.
An area of research in which I could be making progress if I had funding providing an income of at least £100,000 a year (progress would no doubt be faster with more income) is pain control.
There are several other areas of research in which I could be making rapid progress with a similar level of funding, but this particular area has the obvious and immediate practical usefulness which I am often told my other proposed areas lack, although I may myself consider them as related to areas of greater fundamental significance, such as the mechanism of perception.
Some forty years ago, when I was an undergraduate at Oxford, I had to have two teeth out. Because I seriously disliked the idea of having my consciousness invaded, even by the sensations of injection and anaesthetised extraction, I thought about the psychology of pain. As a result, I had the two teeth out with anaesthesia and without any unpleasantness to myself.
People who wish to relate this to something already know about and hence of no interest for further research often suggest that this was self-hypnosis. Actually it was not. In the case of the extractions it would be possible to maintain that I had been giving the matter so much thought that some sort of self-hypnosis had resulted, but several years later, with no preparation of any sort, the technique worked just as well when I had several holes drilled for fillings.
On this later occasion, the dentist (a new one) said afterwards, ‘Well, do you feel pain or don’t you?’ He said that he could usually tell when he was drilling on a nerve by the salivation, but he could not in my case. This illustrates the fact that this technique, or techniques that might be developed from it, eliminates some of the physiological side effects of pain and may eliminate the shock reaction associated with severe injury or major operations.
Clearly if this research could be carried out one of the first things to clarify would be to get a complete picture of the physiological and electrophysiological factors involved, to understand as clearly as possible what is actually going on. Also one would wish to discover how an individual’s own personality factors may effect the efficacy of the technique, and whether modifications could be developed to suit different types of people.
Although I have not been able to carry out any formal research, it does appear that at least in principle the technique is communicable. I used to explain it to graduates and undergraduates at my college, and those who tried it out said it had worked on a number of minor things, and in one case on a fairly major one.
Copy of a letter discussing this possible area of research
When I tell people about the teeth, they seem to find it difficult to imagine, and I suppose I would have done before I did it. But it is actually the case that when the emotional conflict is eliminated, pain sensations are observable in exactly the same way as visual ones, one observes the variations in colour and intensity even with some interest. I noticed when the nerves at the base of the teeth snapped because a certain component in sensations stopped, rather as if some particular instrument stopped playing in a piece of music.
Of course, the thing about pain was amazing at the time, and I thought it was quite a scientific breakthrough in its own right. It seemed a most remarkable thing that the experience could be so radically altered by purely psychological means. Previously I had thought of pain sensation the way anyone else did, with the intrinsic emotional conflict, and that was quite different. I think that by now I can’t really imagine the normal way of experiencing pain with any vividness, as once you know how it is done, it goes on working automatically to some extent, even when you are on a low energy level and not paying any attention to trying to make it work.
I even hoped for a short time that I might get some credit for it as a scientific development and someone would see the point of letting me do research on it, but I soon realised that nobody would see any interest in it at all, and would only wish to account for it as something different from what it was, such as self-hypnosis, psychotic anaesthesia, etc.
Well, actually, I only realised gradually that no-one would ever see any interest in it, a few years later I was still surprised that a physiologist who did experiments on pain (sadistic experiments, I think, with animals) would see no interest in it at all and just want to carry on trying to develop his own ideas, which did not seem to be working out very well.
It was not anything I felt very frustrated about because it was not obviously of any great theoretical importance, although research done under my auspices would always be quite likely to get on to something really fundamental. But I would have liked to run a research institute working on it in the way one would like to run a large organisation working on anything, and it had the immediate practical applicability that people are always asking me to demonstrate when I propose research on areas of greater theoretical interest.
Although discovering it in the first place may have depended on a particular kind of psychology, it seems to be communicable to other people. But its communicability and the best ways of doing so would be one of the first things to research.
Then one would want to know how the physiological and electrophysiological factors are affected by the psychological; at least some of the physiological side-effects are suppressed. People used to say to me that if I had to have a major operation, I would not be allowed to have it without an anaesthetic, adding to justify this, ‘after all, there is the shock, you know’. But quite possibly the shock reaction is eliminated, or could be.
Some half-dozen years after the extractions I had some holes drilled for fillings in my teeth by a different dentist. I refused injections as usual, and afterwards he said, ‘Well, do you feel pain or don’t you?’ He said he could usually tell when he started drilling on a nerve because of the salivation, but in my case he couldn’t.
So that would be another obvious area of research and obviously all this research might lead to improvements or extensions of the technique. So it would still be (and would have been) well worth while to give me the resources to develop this.
From time to time I hear of units being set up to train cancer patients in psychological attitudes which are supposed to reduce their dependence on drugs (give the doctors an excuse to withhold them and leave them suffering longer, I suppose) and also the army recognises the usefulness of training soldiers who may be exposed to torture. But nobody ever thinks of paying me a consultancy fee.
Here I am, completely unsalaried and unfunded, with not the very lowliest kind of academic appointment that could possibly, if not probably, lead to a better one.
Somewhere in Plato there is a bit that goes like this: ‘If the king’s daughter is ill and all the most statusful doctors of the land have failed to cure here because in spite of their qualifications and experience they are nincompoops, do you not think the kind will look elsewhere for someone to cure his daughter?’ ‘Assuredly so.’ ‘And if the king should hear of someone in a far land with no social status at all who has been effecting the most marvellous cures of the most serious diseases, will he not send messengers forthwith to bring him to cure his daughter?’ ‘Undoubtedly, and with the greatest alacrity.’
Even when I first read that at fifteen or so I thought there was something that sounded implausible about it.