Have a talent and enjoyment for inflicting prescribed doses of pain? Your dream job awaits. (Biology undergraduate required.) Contact: 555-8428

  …as seen in classified ads.

You are not supposed to be reading this. You’re an ape who never evolved to read, but you can do so because writing culturally evolved to be shaped just right for your illiterate visual system. As I have argue in my research and recent books, culture’s trick for getting writing into us was to harness our ancient visual system for a new purpose (The Vision Revolution), a trick also used for speech and music (upcoming in Harnessed). (Hint: The trick to harnessing is, in each case, to mimic nature.)

This “harnessing” strategy is just the tip of the iceberg – our modern civilization is, in myriad ways, shaped to fit our fundamentally uncivilized selves. Culture has given us clothes that fit our body shapes, color patterns that fit our innate color senses, lexicons that fit our brains, religions that fit our aspirations, and chairs that fit our butts.

But there is one blaring gap in how we have been harnessed for modernity, a gap that, if addressed, would lead to a revolution in safety and well-being for humankind.

What’s missing is pain

Pain is crucial, of course, because it keeps us safe, and prevents us from engaging in acts that injure or slice off parts of ourselves. Although wishing for a world without pain sounds initially alluring, one quickly realizes that such a world would be hell – it would be a world of the walking bruised and hideously injured (unless you’re into that). Those who lack pain don’t last long. And even if they avoid catching on fire or bleeding to death, they often succumb to death by a thousand pricks (e.g., they don’t shift their body weight as the rest of us do when they sit too long in one position, and this leads over time to circulatory damage). 

Pain is designed to be elicited before injury actually occurs, with the hope that it prevents injury altogether. (E.g., see Why Does Light Make Headaches Worse?) Pain is evolutionarily designed to cause us to say, “Ouch!”, rather than, “Darn, I needed that appendage!”

More importantly for our purposes here, pain is rigged to be elicited in scenarios that would have been dangerous for our ancestors out in nature. A great example of what happens to animals who encounter injurious situations they have no pain mechanisms to deter them from is when natural gas accumulates in low spots. One animal gets there and dies. Another animal sees an easy meal, and also dies. Soon there are many dozens of dead animals there, lured to their death, with life-snuffing injuries sneaking up on them without the benefit of warning pain.

And there’s your problem! We no longer live in the nature that shaped our bodies and brains, and the dangerous scenarios we now face aren’t the same as those our ancestors faced. Electricity, ban saws, nail guns, stove tops, toasters perched next to bathtubs, and countless other modern dangers exist today, dangers that we’re not designed to have safety-ensuring pain to protect us from (until it’s too late).

What we need are technologies that inflict “smart pain,” pain not only designed to go off at signs of modern dangers, but designed to be painful in the right way, on the right body part, so as to optimally alert us to the acute danger. 

Just to throw out a few examples…

  • Your car rigged to shock you on your left or right side if drive your car within several inches of an obstacle on your car’s left or right, respectively.

  • Your computer set to shine a painfully bright red light if you are about to click on a suspicious link.

  • A wearable device with a video sensor that detects the likelihood that the person you’re picking up at a bar has an STD, and then causes severe itching until you flee the bar.

You’re beginning to get the idea, and I hope you can see that the ideas are endless. What I would like to see are your own suggestions for the future of pain engineering, and to a world where all sadists are employed.