Thursday, August 21, 2008

colour and pain

It never really concerned me before if I experienced "red" in the "same way" as somebody else. Did I experience it myself in the same way from day to day? I could see why it might be interesting to contemplate this but its not something I would invest my life in wondering or writing about. But recently something of similar experiential origins has changed the way I think about perception --- pain!

The experience of chronic pain completely changes the way the world is perceived. Focusing on things outside of the body becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible, and attention is directed inwards. Everything that does come "from outside" passes through a filter that renders it of such a low priority that what was dominant without the pain may become completely insignificant with it. How much of this pain originates from the injury or other problem? How much is concerned purely with the brain's response to the pain it perceives and is entangled with the sufferer's mental state (including their expectations and fear of the injury)?

Of course the whole situation is distressing also for those around the sufferer because the person they used to know no longer engages with them as expected. The sufferer becomes "a different person". Their internal state is completely altering their external appearance and interactions yet there may be no externally obvious reason for this. Outsiders simply need to rely on the pain sufferer articulating the experience and a large dose of empathy.

...and then along comes an external agent and removes the source of the pain. As if a switch was flicked the world of the former sufferer changes colour again. What has changed? It may be a physically (or chemically) tiny thing that was causing such a dramatic perceptual reconfiguration and now it is gone or mended. Or is it only that the mental state of the sufferer has gone from one of "victim" to one of "saved"?

Once pain's filter has been experienced and has ground its way into the sufferer's consciousness over time, everything outside looks slightly different. Is the red seen now the same as the red seen before the pain? Is it the same red that was seen during the pain? These appear to be three different colours. But in what sense could it be said that they are different? To what extent does previous experience change our perception of something as physical (cf. conceptual) as the present experience of colour?

I feel this demonstrates simply and clearly how wrong any artist (e.g. Kandinsky) is when attempting to discern the absolute properties of various colours. The idea is ridiculous.

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