the good and bad of pain

From Norman Doidge's The Brain's Way of Healing:

"Then he amputated the animal's third finger. After a number of months, he remapped the monkey's remaining fingers and found that the brain maps for the second finger and fourth finger had grown into the space he had originally mapped for the third."

I often forget this important insight about how our brains work (though the grotesque image of chopping an ape's finger off will help with recall). 

There are two angles of insight here:

  1. Our brains (and bodies) are wired to overcompensate. This is good!
  2. Our brains (and bodies) are wired to overcompensate. This is bad!

The good: Shortcomings often become strengths if you survive for long enough. This is essentially the "Rose in the Concrete" effect. Your brain understands that something isn't right and uses everything at its disposal to fill in the gaps. Examples worth looking up: Elon Musk's childhood in South Africa; attorney David Walton's stutter.

The bad: Mismanaged pain expands into areas that, objectively speaking, shouldn't feel pain. Doidge brings up the example of chronic pain he had developed in the left side of his neck due to a previous injury. When went untreated, this throbbing pain spread to the other side of his neck (even though that side had no injury).

Another way to view this same insight comes from Paul Graham's essay The Hacker's Guide to Investors:

"Instead of a beautiful but fragile flower that needs to have its stem in a plastic tube to support itself, better to be small, ugly, and indestructible."

Many people to try engineer lifestyles where no pain is encountered or ever felt. But a) most things amazing have arisen from moments of pain and suffering (or at the very least, discomfort and stress); and b) to avoid pain is a "Brave New World"-esque attempt at control that really isn't sustainable.