“Pain in the conscious human is thus very different from that in any other species. Sensory pain never exists alone except in infancy or perhaps under the influence of morphine when a patient says he has pain but does not mind it. Later, in those periods after healing in which the phenomena usually called chronic pain occur, we have perhaps a predominance of conscious pain.”
~Julian Jaynes, Sensory Pain and Conscious Pain
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen a child react to a cut or stumble only after their parent(s) freaked out. Children are highly responsive to adults. If others think something bad has happened, they internalize this and act accordingly. Kids will do anything to conform to expectations. But most kids seem impervious to pain, assuming they don’t get the message that they are expected to put on an emotional display.
This difference can be seen when comparing how a child acts by themselves and how they act around a parent or other authority figure. You’ll sometimes see a kid looking around to see if their is an audience paying attention before crying or having a tantrum. We humans are social creatures and our behavior is always social. This is naturally understood even by infants who have an instinct for social cues and social response.
Pain is a physical sensation, an experience that passes, whereas suffering is in the mind, a story we tell ourselves. This is why trauma can last for decades after a bad experience. The sensory pain is gone but the conscious pain continues. We keep repeating a story.
It’s interesting that some cultures like the Piraha don’t appear to experience trauma from the exact same events that would traumatize a modern Westerner. Neither is depression and anxiety common among them. Nor an obsessive fear about death. Not only are the Piraha physically tougher but psychologically tougher as well. Apparently, they tell different stories that embody other expectations.
So, what kind of society is it that we’ve created with our Jaynesian consciousness of traumatized hyper-sensitivity and psychological melodrama? Why are we so attached to our suffering and victimization? What does this story offer us in return? What power does it hold over us? What would happen if we changed the master narrative of our society in replacing the competing claims of victimhood with an entirely different way of relating? What if outward performances of suffering were no longer expected or rewarded?
For one, we wouldn’t have a man-baby like Donald Trump as our national leader. He is the perfect personification of this conscious pain crying out for attention. And we wouldn’t have had the white victimhood that put him into power. But neither would we have any of the other victimhoods that these particular whites were reacting to. The whole culture of victimization would lose its power.
The social dynamic would be something else entirely. It’s hard to imagine what that might be. We’re addicted to the melodrama and we carefully enculturate and indoctrinate each generation to follow our example. To shake us loose from our socially constructed reality would require a challenge to our social order. The extremes of conscious pain isn’t only about our way of behaving. It is inseparable from how we maintain the world we are so desperately attached to.
We need the equivalent, in the cartoon below, of how this father relates to his son. But we need it on the collective level. Or at least we need this in the United States. What if the rest of the world simply stopped reacting to American leaders and American society? Just smile.
Credit: The basic observation and the cartoon was originally shared by Mateus Barboza on the Facebook group “Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”.