I attended a conference on pain at Reading University a few months ago. The 2 days were fascinating, having speakers from a wide range of backgrounds. Dr Amanda Williams, UCL, gave a very interesting talk on pain in animals. She said that although chronic pain has been observed in farmed and domesticated animals, there has yet to be documented chronic pain in wild animals.
She states this might simply be because it has yet to be been observed but may well be in the future. There is a however a strong possibility that animals in the wild do not have chronic pain. Studies of wild animals have shown that on examination after death it is very common to see jaw fractures or even broken limbs, but that the animal appears to have adapted around them and lived a full life.
So the obvious question is, why would wild animals not experience chronic pain?.
Well as Dobzhansky says “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”. There must be a reason why it were not in the interest of an animal in the wild to suffer long term pain and inversely an adaptive reason why modern “settled” life gives us chronic pain.
Williams suggests that both points can be answered as one. In non human primates for example, there is very little signalling of pain, only subtleties such as energy conservation. It is probable that due to social hierarchies, showing pain, may affect their position in a group in terms of status and order of ranking. Also, if living as a pack, their movement is limited by pain then being left behind by the group will certainly lead to their early demise as they will be open to attack as they no longer have the protection of the pack. In domesticated/ farmed animals and humans, our lives are settled and boundaries to a degree are constricted, then showing pain can allow others to show care and offer help in support for you pain and suffering.
What would early humans have been like?. Descartes stated that non-humans are simply “Beast Machines” made up of flesh but without conscious minds. Neuroscientist Anil Seth argues that we humans too are Beast Machines (here is his talk on this- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1syDjtlMGbo ), with a brain encased in a skull, that is simply trying to make sense of the internal and external world. Although there is a lot to be said against living as a hunter gatherer- being more prone to disease, early death/murder and starvation, we have spent the vast majority of our existence on earth living in this way. I wonder how strong their sense of being in touch with their their bodies were?. Were they more emotionally in touch with themselves, as feelings are our experience of messages from our bodies, which in turn make up our emotional life. Because we have so much information coming from the external world, via phones, televisions, living in cities etc, have we paid a price with our emotions?. It has been shown that people who are inaccurate at understanding feelings from their bodies are more prone to chronic pain.
Perhaps also we are missing our direct contact with nature. A walk along the coast or through the woods has been shown to have positive effects on our health and wellbeing. The Japanese art of forest bathing has become popular in the West, which could be described as meditating in the forest and has been shown to be highly beneficial to both our nervous and immune systems.
One of the benefits of manual therapy is therapeutic touch, which allows someone to experience a therapists hands moving over their body. Indeed this may be one of the main reasons why therapy helps – to use someone else’s hands to improve your understanding of your own body.
My M.A.P (Mindful Awareness Programme) course is built on the above understanding and seeks to bring people back into their bodies, with a strong element on interpreting feelings that result from each exercise in the programme
Here is a link to an interesting new paper around nature as a medicine.
(Painting by my talented wife Caroline Yates)