Stephanie Eichberg

From Metaphor to Molecule: Decoding the Languages of Pain

Conceived as “cell-deep and world-sized”, the phenomenon of pain has always posed a challenge to interdisciplinary collaboration (not necessarily helped by the fact that the International Association for the Study of Pain has declared it to be an exclusively subjective experience, thus effectively constituting the sufferer as the only true expert on his or her pain). As pain also represents the ‘inbetween’ of psyche and soma and is subject to various influences from without an individual’s body and mind, research on pain is far from presenting a unified field of scientific inquiry. The various disciplines that take up pain as an object of study each have their own way of conceptualising it, ranging from a focus on neuronal activity or specific areas of the brain to culturally conditioned expressions and complex mental functions, with equally diverse languages of analysis and measurement. While the humanities still debate whether pain can ever be adequately communicated, in medicine, where the languages of biology and culture often meet, a patient’s individual use of metaphorical descriptions and ‘as if’- constructions to express their pain has long served as a gateway to identifying underlying conditions. Recently, this capacity for metaphorical thinking and expression has also captured the attention of the neuro- and cognitive sciences, signaling an integration of psychological and cultural aspects of pain on the level of brain modules and potentially even molecular connections. Although we might ask whether it is really possible or even desirable to translate a pain metaphor into neural code and back in order to achieve a productive synthesis of knowledge, this development opens up fascinating possibilities for a collaborative effort of science and the humanities. Focusing on the various languages of and about pain, this paper will be looking at current attempts to bring the different epistemological practices and semiotic systems involved in studying pain together.