Glasgow Science Festival Event: ‘The Value of Suffering’

For the first time, Glasgow Science Festival has worked in partnership with the Department of Philosophy at the University of Glasgow to bring us ‘The Value of Suffering’. Suffering is defined as the state of undergoing pain distress or hardship. It is effectively the opposite of happiness and pleasure and is universally perceived as a negative experience. But can suffering sometimes be a good thing? After listening to the talk by Professor Michael Brady, I believe the short answer to that question is yes.

The Value of Suffering Project is run by a team of philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists and clinicians, and aims to investigate the nature of suffering and other affective experiences (those which feel either positive or negative), highlighting the complex ways in which suffering could be beneficial. Suffering is a key part of life for us all; both our emotions and bodies are hurt frequently. These experiences may vary hugely between individuals, as can the type of suffering. How can we compare the unpleasant sensation of physical pain to that of loneliness or even guilt?

Speaking as a neuroscientist, pain and suffering are important as they play a key role in protecting tissue from damage such as when recoiling from a flame to prevent a burn, or causing you to keep a damaged muscle immobilised. Pain like this is seen to be valuable; it serves a protective function, avoiding further damage and allowing the body to repair. Furthermore, people who have a congenital insensitivity to pain often suffer from severe burns or bone fractures, leading to serious infections without realising.

Prof. Brady posed the question that, as suffering is such an unpleasant experience, is there not some way we could have evolved so as not to feel pain? Unfortunately, it appears not. An example demonstrating the necessity of pain can be seen in the work of Paul Brand, a pioneer in the treatment of leprosy (a disease which results in defective pain perception). He attempted to devise a prosthetic pain system which retained “the good parts of pain without the bad”. He designed a warning system using sensors for painful stimuli at the extremities which triggered a warning signal such as a piercing noise, flashing lights or even electric shocks. All were ignored by patients. Brand deduced that we view pain from artificial sensors very differently from that of natural sources – it was viewed as a punishment and didn’t trigger the same instinct of self-preservation. External signals could be overridden. Pain, however, forces you to act.

It isn’t just physical pain that could have an evolutionary benefit. The sensations of fear and disgust can be beneficial, and can also serve a protective function. For example, does that food smell disgusting? Then don’t eat it! The feeling of guilt can also be reparative, with the weight on your conscience worsening until you apologise, allowing the repair of friendships or family groups. If you don’t really feel bad about your mistake, if you haven’t really been suffering, then your apology can be seen as false and goes unaccepted. It has long been believed that you should atone for your wrongdoing by suffering. This form of pain has communicative value and is important for the survival of the group. Even grief can be viewed as positive in that it brings people together, strengthening the group in times of tragedy and mourning.

As a society, we often equate suffering to wisdom or even strength of character. If somebody has had a relatively easy life, you probably wouldn’t think them to be wise and are much less likely to take advice from them. Suffering and loss are also believed to lead to the understanding of value – you don’t know what you had until it’s gone. Philosophically speaking, suffering could even promote health. As Nietzsche said, “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” (Although he believed this to be true only if you already had a strong character.) Fortitude, resilience, patience and courage are all positive traits which can only be learned through a certain degree of suffering.

Suffering is clearly important in evolutionary terms and is a crude but effective tool for learning, protection and communication. However, suffering can be an incredibly traumatic experience and in many cases, we should do all we can to alleviate it. Our intrinsic resilience to suffering differs between individuals and appears to be very important in the development of mental health conditions. We must discover what it is that makes some individuals more vulnerable than others, and at which point suffering becomes despair. With emotional and mental suffering such as anxiety and depression apparently becoming more common, we must strive to gain a deeper understanding of these conditions in order to better the treatments available. The Value of Suffering Project hopes to contribute to this understanding, integrating what has been learned across the sciences and humanities.

Edited by Debbie Nicol


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