Reminding myself just how awful pain can get (plus, an experiment on myself)

post by Ren Springlea · 2023-03-15T22:44:39.310Z · EA · GW · 54 comments

Contents

    Please be kind to yourself, and remember that the best motivation is sustainable motivation
  Summary
  My three goals
  My "experiment"
  The McGill Pain Index
  The Pain-Track Framework
  Raw results
  Question 1: The importance of getting it right
  Question 2: Is preventing suffering the most important thing?
  Question 3: How does intense pain compare morally to mild pain?
  Miscellaneous thoughts and takeaways
  Limitations and future directions
  Afterword: Sitting at the edge of the lake
  Notes and acknowledgements
None
54 comments

Content warning: This post contains references to extreme pain and self-harm, as well as passing references to suicide, needles, and specific forms of suffering (but not detailed descriptions). Please do not repeat any of the experiments I've detailed in this post. Please be kind to yourself, and remember that the best motivation is sustainable motivation.

Summary

My three goals

I began this experiment with three main goals:

I think it is useful to test my intellectual ideas against what it is actually like to experience pain. This is not for motivation - I already work plenty in my role in animal advocacy, and I believe that sustainable motivation is the best motivation (I talk about this more at the end).

My "experiment"

I subjected myself to two somewhat-safe methods of experiencing pain:

I wish I had a somewhat-safe way to experience pain that is more intense than these two experiences, but these are the best I could come up with for now.

During both of these experiences, I recorded the pain levels. I recorded the pain in three ways:

The McGill Pain Index

Here is a visual summary of how the McGill Pain Index PRI scores are calculated, as well as some typical scores associated with human health conditions. I do assume, but I haven't checked, that the scores would vary somewhat from person-to-person and depending on the specifics of the condition. This is illustrated with childbirth, which is given three scores (the pain varies depending on the experience and preparation level of the birthing parent).

I gather that the McGill PRI scores range between 0 and 78 (that's how it worked on the app that I used). Most images in the literature and on the internet only go up to 50. I'm assuming they're the same scale, but please point out if I've misinterpreted something and I'll fix it.


(Credit: Scale on the right adapted from Wong (2022), in turn reproduced from Melzack (1984). Sample words from Wikipedia.)

The Pain-Track Framework

For Pain-Track, the article by Alonso and Schuck-Paim gives the definitions of each category in the Pain-Track framework:

Raw results

Experience

McGill PRI

PainTrack Category

Subjective description of what this was like

Tattoo - inner wrist - after 5 minutes

52

Disabling (upper end)

Argghhhhhhhhhhhh! I had to stop twice and almost called off the tattoo. The nausea was extremely challenging and almost as unpleasant as the pain.

Tattoo - calf - after 5 minutes (lines)

36

Disabling

Very intense electric shock. Not unbearable, but definitely wouldn't be able to conduct any tasks.

Tattoo - calf - after 45 minutes (colouring)

49

Disabling

**** me, make it stop. Like someone slicing into my leg with a hot, sharp live wire.

Tattoo - calf - after 75 minutes (colouring)

-

-

Rapidly alternating between the previous two ratings, depending on where the needle is. The lower ranking ['after 5 minutes'] is a real relief. The latter ranking, ['after 45 minutes'] if I were experiencing it not by choice and with no end in sight, would cause me to literally end my life within days or sooner.

Tattoo - shoulder - after 5 minutes (thin lines, thin needle)

26

Disabling (lower end)

Like the leg electric shock feeling, but softer. Can manage.

Tattoo - shoulder - after 30 minutes (thick lines, thick needle)

12

Disabling Hurtful

Aching buzzing, like a mild headache in my shoulder. Could do a day of work, albeit at a lower capacity.

Tattoo - shoulder - after 75 minutes (colouring)

19

Hurtful or Disabling (about midway between them)

Sore and painful, not quite as sharp as the leg

Cold pressor test, 1 min

34

Disabling (lower end)

Stings a lot. Very sore and tingly, quite unpleasant.

 

(Credit: Scale and scores on the left of the column are adapted from Wong (2022), in turn reproduced from Melzack (1984).)

Question 1: The importance of getting it right

The goal

Outcome

Question 2: Is preventing suffering the most important thing?

The question

Background - opinion before the experiment

Outcome - opinion after the experiment

Some further thoughts

Question 3: How does intense pain compare morally to mild pain?

The question

Background - opinion before the experiment

 

Weightings (units of time that would equate with 1 unit time of annoying pain)

 

Annoying

Hurtful

Disabling

Excruciating

3 Feb 2023 (no particular special time)

1

15

560

200,000

Outcome - opinion after the experiment

 

Weightings (units of time that would equate with 1 unit time of annoying pain)

 

Annoying

Hurtful

Disabling

Excruciating

4 Feb 2023 (Evening after getting tattoos)

1

15

1,000

??? Maybe infinite ???

25 Feb 2023 (After doing cold pressor tests)

1

10

490

???

Miscellaneous thoughts and takeaways

Limitations and future directions

Afterword: Sitting at the edge of the lake

Notes and acknowledgements

As a disclaimer, I chose to do this experiment myself, and nobody encouraged me. My views do not represent the views of my employer.

I would like to thank my friends and professional contacts who helped guide my thinking and writing on this topic.

54 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Molly · 2023-03-17T19:31:27.854Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

FWIW, I've undergone both getting a tattoo in a relatively painful place (my ribcage) and natural/unmedicated childbirth, and your assessment of the pain doesn't really line up with my experience. My tattoo is pretty small, and I suspect the wrist would be more painful, so maybe that explains the delta. But my unmedicated childbirth was also significantly faster than average, (like a total of about 70 minutes), so that should also close some of the delta. 

The pain of the most painful parts of childbirth was excruciating in a way that just wasn't in the same ballpark as the tattoo. The tattoo was more like the early parts of childbirth - hard to talk, had to focus to control my breathing, took extra mental energy to answer a question, sweating from discomfort. Transition labor was a whole other beast, though - it was like my body couldn't contain that amount of pain and was being split open, but that the environment that it was being split open into contained pain instead of air. 

Maybe the key difference is "I went through these experiences voluntarily and with the knowledge that I have the freedom to stop whenever I want." I did not intend on having an unmedicated birth (I was open to it, but wanted the choice to be mine). Labor progressed so quickly that the medical team was unable to get analgesics to me in time. I felt completely out of control and none of the nurses in the labor and delivery room was taking control - I think no one had realized how quickly my labor was progressing. Once the midwife arrived, she took control and within ~30 seconds of her arriving, I no longer felt in terrible pain. In fact, I don't recall feeling any pain after that. Though my guess is that transition labor was over by that point, so it's hard to say why my pain was so greatly diminished. 

It's kind of horrifying to me that there are multiple things rated above this on the pain scale. 

Anyway, it seems like there are probably a ton of people in the world who have tattoos and who have undergone unmedicated childbirth, and I'd be interested to see how their experiences compare. I'd be happy to ask some women I know if you think it'd be informative. 

Replies from: Ren Springlea, MichaelStJules
comment by Ren Springlea · 2023-03-18T05:34:44.910Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for sharing this. It sounds like you found childbirth to be qualitatively more awful than your other experiences? I definitely agree with one of your takeaways - the fact that some experiences have been rates as even worse than this on the pain scale, for me, serves as a very strong motivation to reduce suffering in any way I can.

(I did ask around a fair bit before posting this article, and got the opinions of a number of people close to me who have gone through different painful experiences, both acute and chronic, many of which are mentioned on the pain scale graph. This is part of why I point out that the PRI scores I report aren't supposed to be taken as scientific or literal, emphasise that it's n=1, I'm untrained, definitely only moderate level, etc. But it does reinforce my point, which is basically "wow, all I did was mess around with a tattoo gun for an afternoon and it was this bad, that's all the more reason to do as much as we can to prevent others from experiencing actual pain.")

comment by MichaelStJules · 2023-03-17T19:50:11.093Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for sharing your experiences. There's also an article here with some useful info on and others' experiences with inadequate pain relief for childbirth in the UK: https://www.vice.com/en/article/8x7mm4/childbirth-pain-relief-denied

comment by Jacob_Peacock · 2023-03-16T07:17:53.555Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

(Caveat: Views my own, not my employer's)

I think this sort of first-hand investigation is potentially pretty valuable. I know Ren discourages folks from conducting similar self-experimentation, but I would be curious to see safe and careful experiments of this bent to understand the impact of deliberate experiences of suffering on moral views. Perhaps a worthwhile task for some empirical ethicists.

comment by Ula Zarosa (Ula) · 2023-03-16T14:35:02.203Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Probably one of the coolest things I have ever read on the EA forum. Thank you so much, Ren! I was looking for something like this for years now. I always had this thought: how would it be if we treated animal suffering seriously? If we see them as humans for a bit. The conclusion was always: we will devote our lives, freedom, time, and strength to help them on a totally different level than we do now.

This post helped me see the suffering of animals much better than I have ever seen it before while reading hundreds of articles about their experiences. This was such a clever thing to do. This is such a smart post. I am extremely moved and extremely grateful you wrote it. I am not sure if people would appreciate it, but I do very much. It's so helpful to see this perspective. I don't feel like I need to do the experiments to benefit from your insights.  

I guess it solidifies my focus on decreasing animal suffering as my primary focus area, but it also makes me think more about tradeoffs between different interventions. 

Really great thing!

comment by riceissa · 2023-03-17T01:36:15.493Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I am worried that exposing oneself to extreme amounts of suffering without also [? · GW] exposing oneself to extreme amounts of pleasure, happiness, tranquility, truth, etc., will predictably lead one to care a lot more about reducing suffering compared to doing something about other common human values, which seems to have happened here. And the fact that certain experiences like pain are a lot easier to induce (at extreme intensities) than other experiences creates a bias in which values people care the most about.

Carl Shulman made a similar point in this post: "This is important to remember since our intuitions and experience may mislead us about the intensity of pain and pleasure which are possible. In humans, the pleasure of orgasm may be less than the pain of deadly injury, since death is a much larger loss of reproductive success than a single sex act is a gain. But there is nothing problematic about the idea of much more intense pleasures, such that their combination with great pains would be satisfying on balance."

Personally speaking, as someone who has been depressed and anxious most of my life and sometimes have (unintentionally) experienced extreme amounts of suffering, I don't currently find myself caring more about pleasure/happiness compared to pain/suffering (I would say I care about them roughly the same). There's also this thing I've noticed where sometimes when I'm suffering a lot, the suffering starts to "feel good" and I don't mind it as much, and symmetrically, when I've been happy the happiness has started to "feel fake" somehow so overall I feel pretty confused [LW · GW] about what terminal values I am even optimizing for (but thankfully it seems like on the current strategic landscape I don't need to figure this out immediately).

Replies from: MichaelStJules, Ren Springlea, Timothy Chan
comment by MichaelStJules · 2023-03-17T05:06:48.582Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

It may end up being that such intensely positive values are possible in principle and matter as much as intense pains, but they don’t matter in practice for neartermists, because they're too rare and difficult to induce. Your theory could symmetrically prioritize both extremes in principle, but end up suffering-focused in practice. I think the case for upside focus in longtermism could be stronger, though.

It's also conceivable that pleasurable states as intense as excruciating pains in particular are not possible in principle after refining our definitions of pleasure and suffering and their intensities. Pleasure and suffering seem not to be functionally symmetric. Excruciating pain makes us desperate to end it. The urgency seems inherent to its intensity, and its subjective urgency lifts to its moral urgency and importance when we weight individuals' subjective wellbeing. Would similarly intense pleasure make us desperate to continue/experience it? It's plausible to me that such desperation would actually just be bad or unpleasant, and so such a pleasurable state would be worse than other pleasurable ones. Or, at least, such desperation doesn’t seem to me to be inherently positively tied to its intensity. Suffering is also cognitively disruptive in a way pleasure seems not to be. And pain seems to be more tied to motivation than pleasure seems to be (https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13164-013-0171-2 ).

Replies from: riceissa
comment by riceissa · 2023-03-17T06:35:12.936Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

It may end up being that such intensely positive values are possible in principle and matter as much as intense pains, but they don’t matter in practice for neartermists, because they're too rare and difficult to induce. Your theory could symmetrically prioritize both extremes in principle, but end up suffering-focused in practice. I think the case for upside focus in longtermism could be stronger, though.

If by "neartermism" you mean something like "how do we best help humans/animals/etc who currently exist using only technologies that currently exist, while completely ignoring the fact that AGI may be created within the next couple of decades" or "how do we make the next 1 year of experiences as good as we can while ignoring anything beyond that" or something along those lines, then I agree. But I guess I wasn't really thinking along those lines since I find that kind of neartermism either pretty implausible or feel like it doesn't really include all the relevant time periods I care about.

It's also conceivable that pleasurable states as intense as excruciating pains in particular are not possible in principle after refining our definitions of pleasure and suffering and their intensities.

I agree with you that that is definitely conceivable. But I think that, as Carl argued in his post (and elaborated on further in the comment thread with gwern), our default assumption should be that efficiency (and probably also intensity) of pleasure vs pain is symmetric.

Replies from: MichaelStJules, MichaelStJules
comment by MichaelStJules · 2023-03-17T09:27:24.130Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think there are multiple ways to be a neartermist or longtermist, but "currently existing" and "next 1 year of experiences" exclude almost all effective animal advocacy we actually do and the second would have ruled out deworming.

Are you expecting yourself (or the average EA) to be able to cause greater quantities of intense pleasure than quantities of intense suffering you (or the average EA) can prevent in the next ~30 years, possibly considering AGI? Maybe large numbers of artificially sentient beings made to experience intense pleasure, or new drugs and technologies for humans?

To me, the distinction between neartermism and longtermism is primarily based on decision theory and priors. Longtermists tend to be more willing to bet more to avoid a single specific existential catastrophe (usually extinction) even if the average longtermist is extremely unlikely to avert the catastrophe. Neartermists rely on better evidence, but seem prone to ignore what they can't measure (McNamara fallacy). It seems hard to have predictably large positive impacts past the average human lifespan other than through one-shots the average EA is very unlikely to be able to affect, or without predictably large positive effects in the nearer term, which could otherwise qualify the intervention as a good neartermist one.

comment by MichaelStJules · 2023-03-19T18:32:22.624Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I agree with you that that is definitely conceivable. But I think that, as Carl argued in his post (and elaborated on further in the comment thread with gwern), our default assumption should be that efficiency (and probably also intensity) of pleasure vs pain is symmetric.

I think identical distributions for efficiency is a reasonable ignorance prior, ignoring direct intuitions and evidence one way or the other, but we aren't so ignorant that we can't make any claims one way or the other. The kinds of claims Shulman made are only meant to defeat specific kinds of arguments for negative skew over symmetry, like direct intuition, not to argue for positive skew. Given the possibility that direct intuition in this case could still be useful (and indeed skews towards negative being more efficient, which seems likely), contra Shulman, then without arguments for positive skew (that don't apply equally in favour of negative skew), we should indeed expect the negative to be more efficient.

Furthermore, based on the arguments other than direct intuition I made above, and, as far as I know, no arguments for pleasure being more efficient than pain that don't apply equally in reverse, we have more reason to believe efficiencies should skew negative.

Also similar to gwern's comment, if positive value on non-hedonistic views does depend on things like reliable perception of the outside world or interaction with other conscious beings (e.g. compared to the experience machine or just disembodied pleasure) but bads don't (e.g. suffering won't really be any less bad in an experience machine or if disembodied), then I'd expect negative value to be more efficient than positive value, possibly far more efficient, because perception and interaction require overhead and may slow down experiences.

However, similar efficiency for positive value could still be likely enough that the expected efficiencies are still similar enough and other considerations like their frequency dominate.

comment by Ren Springlea · 2023-03-17T02:50:38.263Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think this is a fair point, if you believe that pleasure can outweigh really awful suffering in practice. I do not currently believe this, for all practical purposes. Basically, my position is that these other human values - while somewhat valuable - are simply trivial in the face of the really awful suffering that is very common in our world.

Do you know of any ways I could experimentally expose myself to extreme amounts of pleasure, happiness, tranquility, and truth?

I'd be willing to expose myself to whatever you suggest, plus extreme suffering, to see if this changes my mind. Or we can work together to design a different experimental setup if you think that would produce better evidence.

Replies from: riceissa, Ian Turner
comment by riceissa · 2023-03-17T07:14:28.044Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Do you know of any ways I could experimentally expose myself to extreme amounts of pleasure, happiness, tranquility, and truth?

I'm not aware of any way to expose yourself to extreme amounts of pleasure, happiness, tranquility, and truth that is cheap, legal, time efficient, and safe. That's part of the point I was trying to make in my original comment. If you're willing forgo some of those requirements, then as Ian/Michael mentioned, for pleasure and tranquility I think certain psychedelics (possibly illegal depending on where you live, possibly unsafe, and depending on your disposition/luck may be a terrible idea) and meditation practices (possibly expensive, takes a long time, possibly unsafe) could be places to look into. For truth, maybe something like "learning all the fields and talking to all the people out there" (expensive, time-consuming, and probably unsafe/distressing), though I realize that's a pretty unhelpful suggestion.

I'd be willing to expose myself to whatever you suggest, plus extreme suffering, to see if this changes my mind. Or we can work together to design a different experimental setup if you think that would produce better evidence.

I appreciate the offer, and think it's brave/sincere/earnest of you (not trying to be snarky/dismissive/ironic here - I really wish more people had more of this trait that you seem to possess). My current thinking though is that humans need quite a benign environment in order to stay sane and be able to introspect well on their values (see discussion here [LW(p) · GW(p)], where I basically agree with Wei Dai), and that extreme experiences in general tend to make people "insane" in unpredictable ways. (See here [EA(p) · GW(p)] for a similar concern I once voiced around psychedelics.) And even a bunch of seemingly non-extreme experiences (like reading the news, going on social media, or being exposed to various social environments like cults and Cultural Revolution-type dynamics) seem to have historically made a bunch of people insane and continue to make people insane. Basically, although flawed, I think we still have a bunch of humans around who are still basically sane or at least have some "grain of sanity" in them, and I think it's incredibly important to preserve that sanity. So I would probably actively discourage people from undertaking such experiments in most cases.

Replies from: Ren Springlea
comment by Ren Springlea · 2023-03-17T07:31:29.303Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Sure, makes sense. Thanks for your reply.

If I wanted to prove or support the claim: 
"given the choice between preventing extreme suffering and giving people more [pleasure/happiness/tranquility/truth], we should pick the latter option"
How would you recommend I go about proving or supporting that claim? I'd be keen to read or experience the strongest possible evidence for that claim. I've read a fair bit about pleasure and happiness, but for the other, less-tangible values (tranquility and truth) I'm less familiar with any arguments.

It would be a major update for me if I found evidence strong enough to convince me that giving people more tranquility and truth (and pleasure and happiness in any practical setting, under which I include many forms of longtermism) could be good enough to forego preventing extreme suffering. This would have major implications for my current work and my future directions, so I would like to understand this view as well as I can in case I'm wrong and therefore missing out on something important.

comment by Ian Turner · 2023-03-17T04:34:05.301Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

You may want to have a look at Logarithmic Scales of Pleasure and Pain [EA · GW] if you haven't already.

Replies from: MichaelStJules
comment by MichaelStJules · 2023-03-17T05:12:54.877Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I was just about to share this. I guess some of the psychedelics in their pleasure scale figure could be the easiest to use to experience intense pleasure, depending on your local laws and enforcement.

Replies from: Ian Turner, Ren Springlea
comment by Ian Turner · 2023-03-17T05:16:12.375Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

That may be true; but for anyone tempted to try it, just a reminder that

the values here are for “good/lucky” trips and there is no guarantee e.g. LSD will feel good on a given occasion

comment by Ren Springlea · 2023-03-17T05:22:22.203Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm happy to consider this further if there are people who would find value in the outcome (particularly if there are people who would change decisions based on the outcome). I think it would be tractable to design something safe and legal, whether through psychedelics or some other tool.

comment by Timothy Chan · 2023-03-17T08:18:55.015Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I also have (moderate) depression and anxiety but I guess I wouldn't consider my experiences 'intense/extreme suffering' (although 'extreme amounts of suffering', as you've written, might make sense here).

The kind of suffering that's experienced when, e.g. being eaten alive by predators, seems to me to be qualitatively different from the depression-induced suffering I experience. I somehow also 'got used to' depression-suffering after a while (probably independent of the anti-depressant effects) and also don't mind it as much as I did, but that numbness and somewhat bearable intensity doesn't seem to come with the 'more physical' causes of suffering.

comment by Ula Zarosa (Ula) · 2023-03-17T21:34:16.927Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

@Ren Springlea [EA · GW] I asked my best friend who has 20+ tattoos and two children about her experience of pain (also inspired by @Molly [EA · GW] 's comment).  This is what she wrote: 

"Having had many tattoos, some of them several hours long and having given birth twice as well as having experienced intense contractions following a termination of a pregnancy, I would not even attempt to compare these pains as they are on an entirely different scale.

I have tattoos over all parts of my body, including areas widely thought of as incredibly painful and I had many a session when I felt like my skin was being ripped apart, yet not a single one of them ever came close to what I felt during childbirth.

I had two unmedicated births when no analgesia was used whatsoever and whilst some hypnobirthing techniques along with mental preparation helped a lot the second time around, the pain I felt was still absolutely excruciating and way above anything a tattoo could ever cause even on a tired swollen and bleeding skin in the most painful place on the body."

comment by Ren Springlea · 2023-03-18T05:47:00.366Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks everybody for the discussion on this post. I'm glad to see it has inspired some thought and debate, and that other people are sharing their experiences.

I've reached my limit for engaging with these comments, so now I need to return to my main tasks (doing my best to prevent suffering + self-care) and I won't reply to future comments (but happy to correct objective errors). Thanks again everyone.

comment by Matt Goodman (Matt g) · 2023-03-16T12:04:50.255Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I went through these experiences voluntarily and with the knowledge that I have the freedom to stop whenever I want. People suffering from painful disease, children dying of hunger, chickens being electrocuted to death, fish being asphyxiated to death - for these individuals, such experiences are a horrific reality, not an experiment

I think this is a very important distinction that should be given more emphasis. When I've experienced severe pain, the no.1 thought in my mind was "oh god make it stop". This makes complete sense if you think of pain as your body's way of saying, "ok, whatever it is you're doing, you need to stop doing it now." And I think a lot of the psychological suffering I experienced  was due to the stress of not being able to stop the thing that was causing pain, and not knowing how long the pain would go on for. I add the word 'psychological' for clarity here, but in reality I don't think there's a clear difference between  'psychological' and 'physical' sources of pain. All pain in a sense is psychological - all of it happens 'in your mind', and factors such as knowing the pain will end soon can have a big effect on the experience of pain.

This distinction could also have a big effect on how people rate their pain on the pain-track framework. The framework seems to define pain a lot in terms of 'how long could a person endure this?' And that answer probably varies a lot depending on whether you know the pain will go away soon, or not. For 'disabling' pain, it could literally be less disabling, if you knows it's going to end soon. You might think something like, "ok, I know this will end in 5 minutes, for now I'm going to do this other job to distract myself". And looking back at the experience, and your behaviour at the time, you might read the scale, and think "ok it's wasn't that disabling, I could still do stuff".  

Replies from: David Johnston
comment by David Johnston · 2023-03-17T21:01:06.239Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I have the complete opposite intuition: equal levels of pain are harder to endure for equal time if you have the option to make them stop. Obviously I don’t disagree that pain for a long time is worse than pain for a short time.

This intuition is driven by experiences like: the same level of exercise fatigue is a lot easier to endure if giving up would cause me to lose face. In general, exercise fatigue is more distracting than pain from injuries (my reference points being a broken finger and a cup of boiling water in my crotch - the latter being about as distractingly painful as a whole bunch of not especially notable bike races etc).

Thinking a bit more: the boiling water actually was more intense for a few seconds, but after that it was comparable to bike racing. But also, all I wanted to do was run around shouting obscenities and given that I was doing exactly that I don’t recall the sense of being in conflict with myself, which is one of the things I find hard to deal with about pain.

I don’t know that this scales to very intense pain. The only pain experience I’ve had notable enough to recall years later was e when I ran 70km without having done very much running to train for it - it hurt a lot I don’t have any involuntary pain experiences that compare to it (running + lack of preparation was important here - I’ve done 400km bike rides with no especially notable pain). This was voluntary in the sense that I could have stopped and called someone to pick me up, but that would have disqualified my team.

One prediction I’d make is that holding my hand in an ice bucket with only myself for company would be much harder than doing it with other people where I’d be ashamed to be the first to pull it out. I don’t just mean I’d act differently - I mean I think I would actually experience substantially less psychological tension.

Replies from: Matt g
comment by Matt Goodman (Matt g) · 2023-03-18T12:03:43.471Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Your comment made me realise I'm actually talking about two different things:

  • When you can choose to end the pain at any point e.g.  exercise, the hand-in-cold-water experiment.
  • When you can't choose to end the pain, but you know that it will end soon with some degree of certainty. e.g. "medics will be here with morphine in 10 minutes", or "we can see the head, the baby's almost out".

I agree with you that having some kind of peer pressure or social credit for 'doing well' can help a person withstand pain. I'd imagine this has an effect on the hand-in-cold-water experiment, if you're doing it on your own vs as part of a trial with onlookers.

comment by Geoffrey Miller (geoffreymiller) · 2023-03-17T02:51:18.323Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Fascinating essay. 

BTW, you mentioned the'Schmidt Index' of insect sting painfulness. It was named after entomologist Justin Schmidt, who died recently (Feb 18, 2023). The Economist magazine just published a charming and informative obituary of him him here

Replies from: Ren Springlea
comment by Ren Springlea · 2023-03-17T02:57:03.564Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Ah I wasn't aware Schmidt had recently died. That's a shame, he must have died after I wrote the first draft of this article. I read his book (The Sting of the Wild) which helped inform this article. Thanks for sharing this, I'll read the obituary.

comment by sapphire (deluks917) · 2023-03-15T23:48:27.712Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Ime you can induce much more torture than a tattoo relatively safely. Though all the best 'safe' forms of torture do cause short term damage to the skin. 

Replies from: Jacob_Peacock
comment by Jacob_Peacock · 2023-03-16T13:40:01.136Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Not sure why this is being so heavily down-voted. I believe it's accurate and contributes, especially re: my comments where a safe and non-permanent way of causing severe pain would be needed.

comment by DirectedEvolution (AllAmericanBreakfast) · 2023-03-19T18:12:39.940Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I had more trouble understanding how nest deprivation could be equivalent to "**** me, make it stop. Like someone slicing into my leg with a hot, sharp live wire." So I looked up the underpinnings of this metric, in Ch. 6 of the book they build their analysis on (pg. 6-9 is the key material).

They base this on the fact that chickens pace, preen, show aggressive competition for nests when availability is limited, and will work as hard to push open heavy doors to access nests as they will to access food after 4-28 hours of food deprivation. Based on this, the authors categorize nest deprivation as a disabling experience that each hen endures for an average of about 45 minutes per day.

This is a technically accurate definition, but I still had trouble intuiting this as equivalent to a daily experience of disabling physical pain equivalent to having your leg sliced open with a hot, sharp live wire.

Researchers are limited to showing that chickens exhibit distress during nest deprivation, or, in more sophisticated research, that they work as hard to access nest boxes as they do to access food after 4-28 hours of food deprivation.

I am suspicious of the claim that these methods are adequate to allow us to make comparisons of physical and emotional pain across species. This is especially true with the willingness-to-work metric they use to compare the severity of nest deprivation and starvation on chickens.

  • Willingness-to-work is probably mediated by energy. After starvation, chickens will be low-energy, and willingness-to-work probably underestimates their suffering. A starving person would like to do 100 pushups to access an all-you-can-eat buffet, but physically is unable to do so. If he's also willing to do 100 pushups to join the football team, does that mean that keeping him off the team is as bad as starving him?
  • People show distressed behaviors in the absence of suffering. I bite my fingernails pretty severely. Sometimes, they even bleed. It's not motivated by severe anxiety in those moments. It's just force of habit. Chickens may be hardwired by evolution to work hard to access nests, without necessary suffering while they do so.
  • Our perceptions of how distressed a behavior is is culturally-specific, not to mention species-specific. I pace and walk around the neighborhood when I'm thinking hard. People get piercings and tattoos. People fight recreationally. We don't assume that people are experiencing high emotional distress in the moments they choose to do these things. Why do we assume that about chickens?

I've spent too long writing this comment, so I'm going to just stop here.

Replies from: MichaelStJules
comment by MichaelStJules · 2023-03-19T19:40:55.530Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This is a technically accurate definition, but I still had trouble intuiting this as equivalent to a daily experience of disabling physical pain equivalent to having your leg sliced open with a hot, sharp live wire.

Nest deprivation could be in the bottom half of the disabling pain intensity range. Ren put their tattoo experiences described as "**** me, make it stop. Like someone slicing into my leg with a hot, sharp live wire." near the high end of disabling. Also, the latter just sounds excruciating to me personally, not merely disabling, but we discussed that here [EA(p) · GW(p)].

 

Besides the evidence you mention, they also mention vocalizations (gakel-calls), which seem generally indicative of frustration across contexts (dustbathing deprivation, food/water deprivation, nesting deprivation), and hens made more of them when nest deprived than when deprived of food, water or dustbathing in Zimmerman et al., 2000, although in that study, the authors discuss the possibility that nest deprivation gakel-calls are more specific and not necessarily indicative of frustration:

In the period Frustration, the number of gakel-calls was higher in treatment Nest than in the other treatments. This might mean that in this treatment the level of frustration was higher. However, this is not supported by higher levels of other behaviours indicative of frustration in treatment Nest compared to the other treatments. An alternative explanation for the higher number of gakel-calls in treatment Nest is suggested by the occurrence of the gakel-call under natural circumstances. The gakel-call is given before oviposition and probably has evolved as a signal towards the rooster McBride et al., 1969; Thornhill, 1988 . According to Meijsser and Hughes 1989 , the performance of the gakel-call is related to finding a suitable nest site, also under husbandry conditions. Another explanation is offered by the motivational model proposed by Wiepkema 1987 . It implies that the gakel-call under these circumstances is an emotional expression of the detection of a prolonged mismatch between actual ‘‘no nest site found’’ state and desired state ‘‘find a suitable nest site’’ and is an indication of frustration. Both oviposition and the detection of a prolonged mismatch could at the same time contribute to the occurrence of gakel-calls. The surplus of gakel-calls in treatment Nest compared to the other treatments might be the gakel-calls specifically related to oviposition.

This latter finding might account for the difference in temporal characteristics of gakel-calls between treatment Nest and the treatments Water and Dust. Gakel-calls in treatment Nest lasted longer and consisted of more notes than in the treatments Water and Dust. Schenk et al. 1983 found that the mean duration of a single gakel-call was longer when dustbathing was thwarted stronger by longer deprivation. However, from the present study, nothing decisive can be concluded about the relation between the number of gakel-calls and their temporal characteristics on the one hand, and the intensity of thwarting in the different treatments on the other

Replies from: AllAmericanBreakfast
comment by DirectedEvolution (AllAmericanBreakfast) · 2023-03-19T21:02:58.224Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for contributing more information.

I understand and appreciate the thinking behind step in Ren's argument. However, the ultimate result is this: 

  • I experienced "disabling"-level pain for a couple of hours, by choice and with the freedom to stop whenever I want. This was a horrible experience that made everything else seem to not matter at all...
  • A single laying hen experiences hundreds of hours of this level of pain during their lifespan, which lasts perhaps a year and a half - and there are as many laying hens alive at any one time as there are humans. How would I feel if every single human were experiencing hundreds of hours of disabling pain? 

My main takeaway is that the breadth and variety of experience that arguably falls under the umbrella of "disabling pain" is enormous, and we can only have low-moderate confidence in animal welfare pain metrics. As a result, I am updating toward increased skepticism in high-level summaries of animal welfare research.

The impact of nest deprivation on laying hen welfare may still be among the most pressing animal welfare issues. But, if tractability was held constant, I might prefer to focus on alleviating physical pain among a smaller number of birds.

Also, to disagreevoters, I'm genuinely curious about why you disagree! Were you already appropriately skeptical before? Do you think I am being too skeptical? Why or why not?

comment by LGS · 2023-03-17T07:48:51.111Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for this post. However, I find myself disagreeing with the implicit hedonistic perspective here.

If you could choose, which would you prefer?

  1. The excruciating, "maybe infinite" pain, for 1 hour (no long-term consequences)
  2. The death of your child (permanent)

I'm not sure if there's a single human alive that would choose (2) over (1). Even if you gave someone a 5-minute sample of the excruciating pain, they'd still choose the 1-hour version over the death of their child, guaranteed.

But children die all the time! That's the point of the AMF and similar charities. If you prioritize animals, you may want to consider whether they care about the deaths of their offspring.

Replies from: Timothy Chan, Ren Springlea, Pynchon
comment by Timothy Chan · 2023-03-17T08:28:00.760Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

IIRC, Vinding used a similar example in his SFE book but framed it using 'impartial' terms. 

For impartiality, choice (1) might be modified to 'the excruciating, "maybe infinite" pain, for 1 hour (no long-term consequences) of one's own child'. In that case, I think it's plausible that humans would choose (2) over (1).

Replies from: kokotajlod, Dr. David Mathers, LGS
comment by kokotajlod · 2023-03-19T10:31:56.636Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think different humans would choose differently. According to various people in this comment section and elsewhere, childbirth is extremely painful and lasts on the order of an hour. Yet people still choose to have children, even though some of those children will grow up to experience childbirth. My own tentative answer is that I'd ask to experience the pain myself a bit first, and also want to get a clearer sense of what life would be like afterwards--if it's a normal healthy late-20th-century middle class American life, I could see myself choosing 1, pending results from experiencing it myself for a bit. 

Maybe I should follow in Ren's footsteps and get a tattoo.

 

Replies from: Timothy Chan
comment by Timothy Chan · 2023-03-19T12:15:50.320Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yeah fair. It seems more accurate to say that some humans would choose (the modified, impartial form of) (2) over (1), and some other humans would choose (1) over modified (2).

comment by Dr. David Mathers · 2023-03-17T11:19:38.035Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

'In that case, I think it's plausible that humans would choose (2) over (1).' What's the evidence for this? 

Replies from: Timothy Chan
comment by Timothy Chan · 2023-03-17T12:05:16.356Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

It's just my intuition that people wouldn't want to subject their child to excruciating physical torture that could be 'infinite' in intensity, and although both options are bad, this would seem worse than the death of one's child.

P.S. Not sure why people are downvoting this? Intuitions can serve as weak evidence.

comment by LGS · 2023-03-17T21:30:31.782Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

First of all, I  doubt it. People don't even commit suicide to avoid 1 hour pain (usually the suicide-due-to-pain people are those who don't anticipate ever getting better).

Second, even assuming you're right, what happens in that world is that the emotional pain still trumps the actual pain. Like, if people prefer their own pain to their child's death, then the death of a child is worse than the pain of a hermit (someone with no family). It's not necessarily worse than the pain for a child... but only if that child has parents. Is that your model? It has important implications.

comment by Ren Springlea · 2023-03-17T08:21:14.341Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I mostly agree with what you've said, and I think that your view and my view are pretty much consistent. My main message isn't really "physical pain is worse than other types of suffering", rather: "I found even moderate physical pain to be really, really awful, which suggests that it's probably really, really morally urgent to prevent both extreme physical pain and other types of extreme suffering".

The hedonistic focus probably arose from the fact that I can subject myself to physical pain quite easily, but less so other types of suffering. I mention this in the limitations section.

comment by allskies (Pynchon) · 2023-03-17T16:54:59.568Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Even if you gave someone a 5-minute sample of the excruciating pain, they'd still choose the 1-hour version over the death of their child, guaranteed.

This seems very clearly not guaranteed for some arbitrarily large amount of pain.

Replies from: Brad West, LGS
comment by Brad West · 2023-03-17T17:38:59.390Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

It probably depends on whether one was given the choice in advance, while not being in the midst of the excruciating pain. The parent would probably precommit to enduring said pain for an hour to save their child. They may, however, choose differently if in the midst of the pain and offered the ability to kill their child to end that excruciating pain.

comment by LGS · 2023-03-17T21:31:32.730Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Do you have children?

Replies from: David Johnston
comment by David Johnston · 2023-03-17T23:04:23.620Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I have children, and I would precommit to enduring the pain without hesitation, but I don’t know what I would do in the middle of experiencing the pain. If pain is sufficiently intense, “I” am not in chatter any more, and whatever part of me is in charge, I don’t know very well how it would act

Replies from: LGS
comment by LGS · 2023-03-17T23:31:41.427Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Oh, I didn't mean for you to make the decision in the middle of pain!

The scenario is: first, you experience 5 minutes of pain. Then take a 1 hour break. Then decide: 1 hour pain, or dead child. No changing your mind once you've decided.

The possibility that pain may twist your brain into taking actions you do not endorse when not under duress is interesting, but not particularly morally relevant. We usually care about informed decisions not made under duress.

comment by MichaelStJules · 2023-03-16T08:12:24.687Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Tattoo - shoulder - after 30 minutes (thick lines, thick needle)

12

Disabling

Aching buzzing, like a mild headache in my shoulder. Could do a day of work, albeit at a lower capacity.

 

Should this say 'Hurtful' instead of 'Disabling'? The way you describe it sounds hurtful to me, and "Tattoo - shoulder - after 75 minutes (colouring)" was marked as Hurtful or Disabling but had a higher score.

Replies from: Ren Springlea
comment by Ren Springlea · 2023-03-16T10:00:04.244Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yes this should probably say "Hurtful". In my personal interpretation of the PainTrack categories, doing a day of work would only really be possible at "Hurtful" or less.

comment by Corentin Biteau (Corentin Fressoz) · 2023-03-20T13:56:12.750Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This is a very good post that asks a very important question: how differently would I act if I had actually experienced extreme amounts of suffering ? 

I suppose that I would have a lot more motivation at preventing the worst kinds of suffering (a lot of the possible work would be in animal welfare, I suppose).

This is neglected and your post is written in a very vivid and clear tone, much better than abstract stuff.

Thank you for this, it's important.

comment by MichaelStJules · 2023-03-16T08:53:11.160Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm curious why you think the most intensely painful parts of your tattoo experiences were disabling at most, and not excruciating. Is it that you still found them bearable, but just barely? The way you subjectively describe them and having to stop suggests to me that they weren't bearable, but I'm not sure.

For what it's worth, the Welfare Footprint Project has slightly refined pain intensity definitions compared to the ones you quote in this post, presumably to be applicable to nonhuman animals and possibly more general in other ways. They describe excruciating pain this way:

All conditions and events associated with extreme levels of pain that are not normally tolerated even if only for a few seconds. In humans, it would mark the threshold of pain under which many people choose to take their lives rather than endure the pain. This is the case, for example, of scalding and severe burning events. Behavioral patterns associated with experiences in this category may include loud screaming, involuntary shaking, extreme muscle tension, or extreme restlessness. Another criterion is the manifestation of behaviors that individuals would strongly refrain from displaying under normal circumstances, as they threaten body integrity (e.g. running into hazardous areas or exposing oneself to sources of danger, such as predators, as a result of pain or of attempts to alleviate it). The attribution of conditions to this level must therefore be done cautiously. Concealment of pain is not possible.

Replies from: Ren Springlea
comment by Ren Springlea · 2023-03-16T09:56:58.532Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

They felt awful, but I kept going with them voluntarily (albeit with some breaks). Under the definition of Excruciating-level pain, that would typically be impossible: "the threshold of pain under which many people choose to take their lives rather than endure the pain". So, there is no way that pain could be Excruciating-level, even though it hurt really bad.

Replies from: MichaelStJules
comment by MichaelStJules · 2023-03-16T14:59:58.303Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Maybe it briefly reached excruciating when you had to stop, but it wasn’t excruciating most of the time or immediately excruciating when you started again and you didn’t expect it to be?

Also, you had a better (faster and more accessible) option than to take your life: just ask them to stop. I'm not sure the fact that you started again means it wasn’t excruciating, because you weren’t in (nearly as intense) pain when you asked them to continue, and you expected to be able to bear it again, at least for a while.

I think a pain of constant sensory intensity and quality can vary in how bad, urgent and tolerable it feels depending on how long you've been subjected to it. How bad it feels depends on your psychological reaction to it, e.g. whether you can distract yourself from it, but your ability to control your attention might wear out. A similar point is made here, with respect to stimulus intensity instead of sensory intensity: https://centerforreducingsuffering.org/research/clarifying-lexical-thresholds/

comment by MattBall · 2023-03-22T17:50:58.963Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I know this is obvious and noted, but uncontrolled suffering is far different. Suffering such that you want to die. (I write about that, in the Worsts, in https://www.losingmyreligions.net/ )
I would ask everyone to check out https://www.preventsuffering.org/  

comment by Jakub Kraus (jakubkraus07@gmail.com) · 2023-03-18T18:58:00.589Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

The weightings use "annoying pain" as a baseline. How many units of annoying pain would you exchange for a unit of moderate happiness? And then how many units of moderate happiness would you trade for a unit of various pleasant experiences (maybe stuff related to psychedelics, food, nature, music, meditation, exercise, laughter, love, success, beauty, relaxation, fulfillment, etc)?

I imagine the answers to the above questions vary significantly from person to person. I'd be keen to see any existing research on this topic.

Also, maybe I missed it, but the "Question 2" section seems to exclude any detailed contemplation of the value of various pleasant experiences. This makes the analysis seem imbalanced to me.

comment by Matt Goodman (Matt g) · 2023-03-16T10:16:03.221Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Hey Ren, this is a great post!

I share your intuition that reducing extreme suffering is the no.1 moral  imperative for humankind.

 What charities do you recommend, if that's what you value most? GiveWell recommended charities based on their own moral weights, which I don't think weight as reducing extreme suffering as highly as me.

Then there's many animal welfare  charities. And there's OPIS, which is the only charity I know that explicitly targets extreme human suffering. Are there any others that I'm missing?

Replies from: Ren Springlea
comment by Ren Springlea · 2023-03-16T10:53:34.988Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for your positive feedback :)

I haven't thought too hard about specific charities. Since I work for a relatively young charity startup, I don't take a very high salary and it wouldn't make sense to increase my salary just to donate.

If I had a large amount of money to donate, I'd probably pick an animal advocacy charity with a strong, well-backed theory of change that focuses on reforms that a) are large-scale and b) prevent high-intensity suffering. Examples of this might include charities working on cage-free hen reforms, the Better Chicken Commitment, or fish slaughter reform. I suspect Fish Welfare Initiative and Shrimp Welfare Project would also fare well from this perspective. 

I haven't researched this question specifically, so there's a good chance my specific interventions/charities would change with further consideration.

Since my day job is in animal advocacy, I'm less informed about human charities. Other people probably have better-informed opinions on human charities for preventing extreme suffering than I could. A fair few people have written on the EA Forum about the importance of preventing extreme suffering, so those people might have some well-informed recommendations.

Replies from: Matt g
comment by Matt Goodman (Matt g) · 2023-03-16T13:59:52.550Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

sorry, I got your name wrong in my reply (changed now)! I'm going to look into my question further, and read some of https://reducing-suffering.org/ you linked to. That's as a result of this post:)