On fear and pain

So I listened to a podcast by Dan Benjamin and Merlin Mann, called Back to Work. This particular episode (16) was called Bracing for the Blow.

One of the things they talked about in the episode was Dan’s visit to the dentist. You might have winced at the word. Apparently, the word “dentist” evokes all sorts of memories and sounds and feelings, most of which are unpleasant and possibly painful. This might happen even if you don’t particularly have an unpleasant visit to the dentist.

Oh right, Dan’s visit. He needed a cavity filled, and he decided to forgo anaesthetic. Just to see what it’s like.

While Dan and Merlin discussed the merits of being mindful to the situation (dentist’s visit) and not letting that affect you, they didn’t bring up reasons why people are so fearful of dentist visits (other than painful memories). So here’s my take. Have you clipped your fingernails and toenails? No, don’t answer that, I’ll assume a yes (because the alternative is a little unpleasant to contemplate…). Have you ever accidentally clipped a bit of the flesh? It hurts, right? That didn’t stop you from clipping nails in the future, did it?

That’s because those regions of pain were far removed from the supreme seat of your senses: your brain. More precisely, your eyes. If you’re blind, then it’s your brain, because that’s where you (most familiarly) process thoughts, sensations, and yes, pain.

The reason why a dental visit is so frightening, is because what’s happening is so close to your brain. It is so close to your eyes, but you can’t see what the dentist is doing, even though you know you’re in good hands. The drilling, the picking and cleaning of teeth, the whirring of the brush. They’re all happening right inside of you, inside your skull.

I’d be interested to find out if blind people have this fear of visiting a dentist, given statistical normalisation. If they can’t see, then a lot of sensations come through feeling. You don’t know for sure if there’s something sharp in front of you, but you stretch out your hands anyway and feel for it, because you won’t know otherwise. Would a dentist fiddling in your mouth feel very different from what you normally feel going about your life?

Taking out an entire toenail

Just so you know, when I was 8 or 9 years old (less than 10 anyway), I had an ingrown toenail. Basically, the toenail started cutting into the flesh. No don’t google for pictures…

Anyway, the doctor suggested the most extreme method of dealing with the problem: taking out the entire toenail. The doctor scheduled an 11pm operation, and so little 8 year old me had anaesthetic injected into my big toe. Then the doctor proceeded to clip the entire toenail out from the base. Oh stop cringing. I could feel the doctor snipping the toenail, but I didn’t dare look. It wasn’t really painful, but the sensation was… weird to say the least.

After the operation, I was brought home by my dad, limping because of the big wad of bandage and gauze on my big toe. It wasn’t until I got home and lying on my mattress trying to sleep, that the pain came. Man was it painful! I slept in fits that night, even with painkillers in my system. Because there was this giant wad of pain at the extreme end of my body. Even though it’s the furthest removed from my brain, it doesn’t stop the pain signals from travelling any slower, ok?

Alright, you can cringe now. Oh don’t be a wuss…

And by the way, my dad found out a much less painful way of dealing with the problem. When my big toenail grew out, the ingrown toenail problem came back. Maybe it’s my shoes or something. So my dad took me to a different doctor. This doctor also scheduled an appointment for an operation.

I can feel you holding your breath. Breathe.

What the doctor did was take a small pair of scissors and carefully cut out the part where the nail was cutting into the flesh. You cut it at an angle almost parallel to the growth direction of the nail, snipping out only a small section. Then you let the nail grow out and slowly edge out the flesh so it’s no longer cutting into it.

So my dad bought a small pair of scissors. When a toenail (it always seem to be the same big toe…) cuts uncomfortably painfully into my flesh, I would snip out a small section of the nail. It’s not a hard “operation”. Beats paying a doctor to do it, right?

Psychological pain

In our modern times, we seldom feel actual physical pain. Most of our pains are psychological. Our fears arising from those psychological pains increase in strength in proportion to how much importance we place on what we hold dear.

I was going to squeeze the word “propinquity” somewhere there… I’ll just let you think about that last sentence of the previous paragraph.

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