Imagine you could live your life without experiencing pain. Not quite as a superhero, you wouldn’t be super strong — you just wouldn’t feel any pain, physical or emotional. Ever.
Would you choose that life?
In “At 71, She’s Never Felt Pain or Anxiety. Now Scientists Know Why.,” Heather Murphy writes:
She’d been told that childbirth was going to be painful. But as the hours wore on, nothing bothered her — even without an epidural.
“I could feel that my body was changing, but it didn’t hurt me,” recalled the woman, Jo Cameron, who is now 71. She likened it to “a tickle.” Later, she would tell prospective mothers, “Don’t worry, it’s not as bad as people say it is.”
It was only recently — more than four decades later — that she learned her friends were not exaggerating.
Rather, there was something different about the way her body experienced pain: For the most part, it didn’t.
Scientists believe they now understand why. In a paper published Thursday in The British Journal of Anaesthesia, researchers attributed Ms. Cameron’s virtually pain-free life to a mutation in a previously unidentified gene. The hope, they say, is that the finding could eventually contribute to the development of a novel pain treatment. They believe this mutation may also be connected to why Ms. Cameron has felt little anxiety or fear throughout her life and why her body heals quickly.
The author discusses how Ms. Cameron was discovered by scientists:
The sequence of events that led scientists to investigate Ms. Cameron’s genes began about five years ago. She was living a happy, ordinary life on the banks of Loch Ness in Scotland with her husband, she said. After a hand operation, a doctor seemed perplexed that she was not experiencing any pain and did not want painkillers.
“I guarantee I won’t need anything,” Ms. Cameron recalled telling Dr. Devjit Srivastava, a consultant in anesthesia and pain medicine at a National Health Service hospital in northern Scotland and one of the authors of the paper.
A few follow-up questions revealed that Ms. Cameron was unusual. At 65, she’d needed to have her hip replaced. Because it had not caused her pain, she had not noticed anything was amiss until it was severely degenerated. Cuts, burns, fractures — these did not hurt either. In fact, it often took the smell of burning flesh or her husband identifying blood for her to notice something wrong. She also reported that eating Scotch bonnet chili peppers left only a “pleasant glow.”
The article continues:
Scientists are also intrigued by Ms. Cameron’s extraordinarily low anxiety level. On an anxiety disorder questionnaire, she scored zero out of 21. She cannot recall ever having felt depressed or scared.
“I am very happy,” she said.
In retrospect, she sees how her genetic disposition may have aided her at work. After years as a primary-school teacher, she retrained to work with people with severe mental disabilities. Erratic, aggressive behavior never riled her, she said.
But though having this mutation may sound like a dream, there are downsides. One is that she is quite forgetful; prone to losing her keys and her train of thought midsentence. The other is that she’s never felt the “adrenaline rush” that other people talk about, she said.
Students, read the entire article, then tell us:
— Would you want to live a life without ever feeling pain — physical and psychological? What would be the advantages and disadvantages of a life without pain?
— How do you imagine your life would be different? In what ways might you be happier? What growth or development, stemming from anxiety or pain, might you have missed? Would you choose to live a pain-free life if it meant that you would never experience an adrenaline rush, as Ms. Cameron says she never has?
— What role has physical pain played in your life? Do you think you have a high or low threshold for pain? Tell us about a memorable experience with physical pain. Were you able to take something positive from the experience?
— In a related article, “The Value of Suffering,” Pico Iyer writes:
Wise men in every tradition tell us that suffering brings clarity, illumination; for the Buddha, suffering is the first rule of life, and insofar as some of it arises from our own wrongheadedness — our cherishing of self — we have the cure for it within. Thus in certain cases, suffering may be an effect, as well as a cause, of taking ourselves too seriously. I once met a Zen-trained painter in Japan, in his 90s, who told me that suffering is a privilege, it moves us toward thinking about essential things and shakes us out of shortsighted complacency; when he was a boy, he said, it was believed you should pay for suffering, it proves such a hidden blessing.
Do you agree? What life lessons can pain and suffering teach?
— By some estimates, tens of millions of Americans suffer from chronic pain. The global pain management drug industry is valued at over $58 billion. Should scientists and pharmaceutical companies investigate Ms. Cameron’s case in hopes of developing more effective treatments for pain? If scientists were successful in developing a pain intervention or vaccine, would you seek out this product? Would you choose to shield your children from physical or emotional pain?
Students 13 and older are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.