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Pain, Perception and the Sensory Modalities: Revisiting the Intensive Theory


Pain is commonly explained in terms of the perceptual activity of a distinct sensory modality, the function of which is to enable us to perceive actual or potential damage to the body. However, the characterization of pain experience in terms of a distinct sensory modality with such content is problematic. I argue that pain is better explained as occupying a different role in relation to perception: to indicate when the stimuli that are sensed in perceiving anything by means of a sensory modality exceed a significant level of intensity. Viewing the system underlying pain experience as an integral and functionally integrated feature of all the senses provides a new perspective on the diverse forms of pain, what it is like to experience pain and the contrasting natures of pain and pleasure.

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  1. 1.

    In the more recent philosophical literature Pitcher (1970, p.372), Newton (1989, p.572), Hall (1989, p.644) and Aydede (2009, p.559) all cite the presence of a dedicated neural system as evidence for the presence of a distinct sensory modality. All but Aydede also use this as support for the view that nociception is perceptual.

  2. 2.

    As the editors have pointed out to me, the use of ‘nociception’ in the literature is sometimes confusing. Here I am using the term to refer to the physiological system, in part composed of nocioceptors, that responds to intense stimulation and typically gives rise to the experience of pain. As such, I am in this paper proposing an account of the function of nociception, and thereby of the nature of the experience of pain to which it gives rise.

  3. 3.

    Pitcher (1970) and Tye (1995a) provide characteristic responses regarding the first three putative differences; see Aydede (2009) for a counter-argument. See section four for more on the affective nature of pain.

  4. 4.

    A minority of sensory theorists deny that nociception is perceptual. They nevertheless take it to be sensory, i.e. having sensory content, and mediated by a distinct sensory modality. So the objections raised in this section also apply to them. In a recent discussion, Corns (forthcoming) notes how, on some views, pain is construed as being perceptual but mediated by one of the standard senses, e.g. touch, rather than a distinctive sense. In my view, construing pain in this way just makes the task of motivating the perceptual approach more difficult for those that seek to do so.

  5. 5.

    See query Macpherson (2011) for a sample of classic and contemporary contributions.

  6. 6.

    These conditions were first set out by Grice (reprinted in Macpherson (2011)). Of central concern for Grice in his paper was whether character and content should count as separable conditions. Grice also gives his reasons to think that pain does not involve a sense. These are that pain is not greatly variegated except in intensity and location, there is no standard procedure for getting a pain, and many types of object can cause pain.

  7. 7.

    This is not to deny the significant role that is played in perceptual experience by cross-modal processes. But these processes presuppose the presence of distinct senses.

  8. 8.

    For present purposes, I am neutral on the issue of how best to understand content, whether perceptual experience relates us to how things are (the relational approach), or represents how things are (the representational approach), and the various ways in which content may then be understood within these approaches.

  9. 9.

    This is not to deny that there are likely to be good evolutionary reasons for a separate physiological system underlying nociception.

  10. 10.

    Akins (1996). Akins introduces the term to describe thermal sensations. I disagree with her account of thermal sensations (see next paragraph); a thermal sensation does tell us something about the thermal stimulus itself. I think the term much more appropriate for pain sensations, the function of which is to tell us about the relevance stimuli have for us.

  11. 11.

    For a fuller defence of the claim that heat perception involves the representation of energy exchanged as opposed to other candidate contents, such as skin temperature, see Gray (2013).

  12. 12.

    Evidence also indicates that bright light causes pain responses. Moreover, since nociceptors are also receptive to chemical stimuli, there is reason to think that the intensive theory can be extended to smell and taste.

  13. 13.

    In this context one might speculate whether damage to the nociceptors, rather than causing them to respond, could have prevented them from responding.

  14. 14.

    Klein (2007) defends the imperative view but not a dual-component approach.

  15. 15.

    Hence we can go further to explaining why function gives rise to experiences with a specific qualitative character, pace Levine (1993), in the case of pain. Indeed, it would seem that the intensive theory has implications for understanding the metaphysics of experience more generally.

  16. 16.

    Such a view runs counter to the perceptual and representational approaches that seek to explain character of experience in terms of content represented. The present model acknowledges an irreducible qualitative aspect to nociceptive experiences but nevertheless situates this within a functional explanation.

  17. 17.

    However, as the early proponents of the pleasure-pain theory found, agreement on a more fine-grained characterization of the pleasure-pain continuum was harder to come by. Some claimed that pleasure and pain are the fundamental modes of mental life from which all forms of mentality derive. Others held that pleasure and pain are sui generis modes of mental life brought into consciousness indirectly via sensation, emotion and intellection. While others argued that pleasure and pain are quale that may arise with all mental phenomena.

  18. 18.

    I am grateful to the editors for their advice relating to an earlier version of this paper.


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Correspondence to Richard Gray.

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Gray, R. Pain, Perception and the Sensory Modalities: Revisiting the Intensive Theory. Rev.Phil.Psych. 5, 87–101 (2014).

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  • Chronic Pain
  • Sensory Modality
  • Perceptual Experience
  • Pain Experience
  • Phenomenal Character