Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Pain as a Gestalt

You know the duck/rabbit phenomenon, where a drawing sometimes looks like a duck and sometimes like a rabbit, but never the two at once. This is known as a Gestalt shift, since the whole form (Gestalt) of the drawing changes from one (duck) to the other (rabbit), and each form is in some sense “greater than the sum of its parts,” which are the original lines and curves and their arrangement on the page, which constitute neither the image of a duck nor a rabbit but are ambiguous or just themselves.
            Another well-known example of Gestalt shift is the Necker cube, another drawing which presents itself to our vision in only one or the other of two distinct aspects – in this case, both times as a cube (and so again not merely the lines or their arrangement on the paper), but with front and back reversed.
            Well, the other day I was out for a walk. Of late I have been suffering from tendinitis, and so I am used to feeling pain at the back of my left foot with each step. But all of a sudden I noticed that the pain was gone. And yet, paradoxically, the feeling had not changed. At least, that is how I was compelled to describe the situation to myself.
            I know of other situations that are similar, where we might be tempted to say that we still feel pain but have ceased to suffer. (My late mentor Jerome Shaffer wrote about this distinction.) The wriggling of a loose tooth could be an example of this; being sedated during a medical procedure another. Masochism would be an extreme case. But what I was feeling on my walk seemed more definitely to be the disappearance of the pain itself. And yet, as I say, I was still feeling something, and the feeling struck me as indistinguishable from what a moment before I had experienced as pain.
            This leads me to an extraordinary hypothesis. Could pain be a Gestalt? And more specifically, could pain be liable to Gestalt shift? In other words, just as we can learn to adjust our vision to see whichever of the duck or rabbit we want to, or whichever orientation of the Necker cube we want to, might we be able to learn how to switch off a pain by experiencing it as a nonpainful sensation?
            I claim no more for this than its being, as I called it, an hypothesis. It is subject to further testing, but each of us can perform these experiments. I do in fact known someone who claims to be able to sit calmly through her dental appointments without anesthetic; I wonder if something like this is going on there. But in my tendinitis case, it is quite possible the pain had simply gone away, and my phenomenology (the way the event felt to me) was simply mistaken as an analysis of what was actually going on.
            If, however, the hypothesis has some merit, then it implies that the correct analysis of, say, tendinitis pain is that there are really three phenomena intimately linked, because both the pain and the nonpainful feeling would be aspects of a third thing, analogous to the lines on the page of the Gestalt drawings. So in neither case would I have been feeling what was “really there” – some yet more primitive sensation, I suppose – but only one Gestalt or the other.