Pain and pleasure have traditionally been conceived as opposite or binary terms. Pleasure is a feeling or experience one hopes to attain while one strives to avoid pain. An individual’s pain and/or pleasure may be experienced or shared by another individual. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith discusses the experience of and the causes of shared pain. Such suffering is not literally shared; we cannot feel the exact amount of pain another feels simply by witnessing their agony. However, pain can be reproduced through the imagination. By witnessing another’s suffering, we can imagine how that pain would feel to us (13). Although we cannot possibly feel the entirety of another’s bodily pain simply from observing the experience, our senses are stimulated to some degree. Thus, a public hanging, or the amputation of a limb can cause physical revulsion and involuntary reactions in the beholder (14, 36). Witnessing pain provokes relative sympathy from the observer. This reaction also depends upon novelty: indifference may develop in proportion to the frequency a spectator has seen violence done to bodies (38). For example, a doctor becomes less moved by sympathetic pain from habitual exposure to patients suffering.
Adam Smith also describes pain as occurring only in the specific moment of its sensation. Physical pain is forgotten more quickly than other sensations; as soon as pain ends, its sensation ends (37). Additionally, the anxiety of feeling further pain disappears as well. According to Smith, the strength of spectatorial sympathy involved varies with the danger or fear associated with that pain. This intensification of sympathy due to danger can come from fears of the unknown. Certain types of pain such as a toothache are too common to elicit strong sympathy whereas an unknown and fatal disease will evoke more extensive sympathy. At the same time, observing another person’s grief can be even more painful because such mental anguish is more tied to the imagination. If pain is a “more pungent sensation than pleasure” (56), as Smith puts it, sympathy with another’s suffering is more intense than sympathy with another’s pleasure.
Smith argues that humans derive considerable pleasure from seeing happiness in others (13). This vicarious form of pleasure occurs when observing in others the very emotions one knows to be normal. A lack of mutual sympathy, by contrast, can be displeasing. Smith gives the example of reading a book to a companion. When we have read a favorite book so much we no longer feel much pleasure in reading it alone, we can derive additional contentment from a companion’s pleasurable reaction. This feeling is particularly strong when the listener registers the same pleasurable emotions that we felt upon first reading the book. If the other were dissatisfied with the book, however, we would feel displeasure at their lack of mutual sympathy and emotions.
By contrast to Smith’s account of sympathetic pain, Silvan Tomkins depicts pain as a physiological process. Pain receptors, the sites in the body where pain is initially felt, are part of the human drive system, composed of biological drives that limit human freedom. For example, the need for oxygen, the expulsion of carbon dioxide, and the intake of foods and liquids are all aspects of the primary drive system that can only be ignored for relatively short amounts of time. Tomkins contrasts the human drive system with the human affect system, which is a “primary motivational system” (34) with significantly more leeway than the drive system. Pain receptors are unique in sharing characteristics of both the drive system and the affect system. As drives, pain receptors report physical perceptions directly to the nervous system. But pain also relates the affect system in its freedom of time. In the drive system, humans have defined limits; they will eventually have to breathe, eat, and drink to survive. Like affects, pain is not constrained in this way. For example, a human can experience extreme distress when pain is prolonged but can rarely die as a direct result of suffering: “[o]ne needs to be in pain only so long as something stimulates the pain receptors … man can tolerate intractable intense pain” (Tomkins 47).
Tomkins distinguishes between physical pain and pain as affect. There is an affective response to embodied pain, expressed for instance in the cry of distress or fear when touching an unbearably hot object. This affective reaction develops in relation to the intensity of the pain (51). Low-intensity pain, such as prolonged contact with hot water, will cause a low-intensity affective response. If the water were to slowly but steadily become warmer, the intensity of the affective response to pain would slowly and steadily become more intensive. Immediate and unexpected contact with boiling water, however, would cause an immediate affective response of distress.
Tomkins also posits that affective responses are central to what he calls anticipatory learning. Anticipation “requires the linking of past experience with present affect” (53). For example, a child remembers the affective response (distress) associated with the past moment of pain so as to avoid that same type of pain in the future. But such avoidance of unpleasantness also has limits. Unlike an adult, an infant has less capacity for escaping pain when it occurs. The child is thus more subject to its drive (particularly primary states such as hunger, pain, and thirst) and the affective responses that accompany it.
Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. New York: Penguin, 2009.
Tomkins, Silvan. “What Are Affects?” Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader. Ed. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Adam Frank, and Irving E. Alexander. Durham: Duke UP, 1995. 3-74.