Senses, Part 2

Speculation on consciousness, pleasure, pain and drugs


Science (and all of consciousness) relies on input (either direct or assisted) that comes into the human body via our senses.  Much about our senses remains poorly understood.  The senses in our skin are among the least well understood.  How many senses reside there?  How is pain and pleasure related?  Folk lore portrayed in stories, movies, and common sense contains preconceptions about our senses, possible connections between pleasure and pain, and possible contributions extreme experiences and drugs might provide.

What follows is an attempt to construct a rational understanding of some of these controversial subjects.

Our senses continually gather far more information than we can store in memory.  Unless sensual information is profound or unique, it will not reach our awareness.  Our brain filters out routine data but calls the unusual to our attention.  The most profound and unique information is usually rewarded by what we describe as pleasure.  Sometimes unique patterns create the pleasure.

But input too energetic can be harmful to our detection system.  So there is a cut off mechanism that utilizes what we call pain.  Pain is most commonly experienced when pressure on a part of the body is too great but also occurs when temperature is too low or too high.  But pain also occurs when a sound is too loud or a light too bright.  It is less clear if pain plays a similar role in taste and odor.  Pain may occur when risks to the body are real, but pain may also occur when the sensory system is flawed and sends false warnings.  As the body ages, false pain becomes more likely.  It is unclear if pleasure and pain overlap.  Perhaps pleasure is replaced by pain as the risk to the body increases. 

Some individuals take great pleasure in detecting delicate tastes in food and drink, faint aromas, or subtle orchestral melodies.  Other individuals crave bass loud enough to be prominently felt and hot spices with lingering after taste.  But growing evidence of the effects of loud sounds suggest that exposing the body to causes of pain probably leads to temporary and perhaps long term loss of sensitivity of the involved sense.

Dreams are also poorly understood.  But one hypothesis is that during dreaming the brain recalls random sensual experiences which it tries to organize similar to story telling.

In many respects we currently have limited understanding about our senses.  However our current understanding has implications about the effects of drugs known to influence the nervous system.  For example, it is well know that ethanol and a number of other drugs delay or block the transmission of information from the senses to the brain and from the brain to muscles.  When a drug is in high enough concentration, the sensual information may be altered so that the brain perceives the information as weird or warped from reality.  Since coping the real world depends on accurate perceptions about reality and rapid muscular responses, it has been well understood that ethanol and some drugs should not be used in hazardous situations or when operating machinery that could cause harm.

It is common to regard warped perceptions caused by drugs to have effects of restricted duration.  But since an individual develops skills and knowledge that are the results of previous sensual experiences, warped perceptions may have long term, although usually minor effects.  But the effects are likely cumulative with repeated experiences.  A cautions approach would restrict sensual experiences to those of benefit.  It might be prudent to avoid ethanol and drug experiences that provide warped experiences, especially when relatively young.

On the other hand, if an injury is providing excessive pain or an aging body is sending false pain, then use of drugs often provides beneficial relief despite the risks.


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created 2/2000
revised 10/12/2002
by D Trapp
Mac made