Is pain where you feel it in the body, or in the brain? Neurophenomenology and the spatial aspect of nociception

body knowledge, clinical neurophenomenology, embodiment, interoception, introspection, introspective accuracy, medicine, pain, physiology, symptom report accuracy, symptom reports, visceral perception

Pain is interesting, salient, mysterious. It may feel like it is in one specific place in or on the body. It may feel diffuse, with gradations, or it may seem referred from one area to another. What is happening in the brain and in the body as these spatial aspects of pain are experienced? How much of the causation of pain occurs where we feel it, and how much occurs in the brain? Below is a series of probes and thinking aloud about where pain is, with speculations to stimulate my thinking and yours.  I’m not a “pain expert”, nor a bodyworker that heals clients, nor a physiologist with a specialization in nociception, but a cognitive scientist, with clinical psychology training, interested in body phenomenology and the brain.  Please do post this essay to Facebook, share it, critique, respond, and comment (and it would be helpful to know if your background is in philosophy, neuroscience, bodywork, psychology, medicine, a student wanting to enter one of these or another field, etc). Pain should be looked at from multiple angles, with theoretical problems emphasized alongside clinical praxis, and with reductionistic accounts from neurophysiology juxtaposed against descriptions of the embodied phenomenology and existential structures.  As I have mentioned elsewhere, it is still early in the history of neurophenomenology…let a thousand flowers bloom when looking at pain. We need data, observations, insights and theories from both the experience side as well as the brain side. Francisco Varela aptly described how phenomenology and cognitive neuroscience should relate:

“The key point here is that by emphasizing a codetermination of both accounts one can explore the bridges, challenges, insights, and contradications between them. Both domains of phenomena have equal status in demanding full attention and respect for their specificity.”

We all know what pain is phenomenologically, what it feels like, but how to define it? The International Association for the Study of Pain offers this definition: “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage.” Of particular interest to neurophenomenology and embodied cognitive science is their claim that “activity induced in the nociceptors and nociceptive pathways by a noxious stimulus is not pain, which is always a psychological state.” Good that they do not try to reduce the experience of pain to the strictly physiological dimension, but I wonder how Merleau-Ponty, with his non-dualistic ontology of the flesh would have responded. Pain seems to transgress the border of mind and body categories, does it not? I am slowly biting off chucks of the work on pain at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Lots of provocative angles, including this one:

“there appear to be reasons both for thinking that pains (along with other similar bodily sensations) are physical objects or conditions that we perceive in body parts, and for thinking that they are not. This paradox is one of the main reasons why philosophers are especially interested in pain.”

Right now I am particularly interested in the spatial aspect of where pain seems to be, what I might label the spatial phenomenology of nociception. When I introspect on aching parts of my feet, it seems as if the pain occupies a volume of space. Using manual pressure I can find places on my feel that are not sore, right next to areas that are slightly sore, which are in turn near focal areas of highest pain. It seems as if the pain is locatable “down there” in my body, and yet what we know about the nociceptive neural networks suggests the phenomenology is produced by complex interactions between flesh, nearby peripheral nerves, the central nervous system, and neurodynamics in the latter especially. A way of probing this this would be to examine the idea that the pain experience is the experiential correlate of bodily harm, a sort of map relating sensations to a corresponding nerve activated by damage to tissue. So, is the place in my body where I feel pain just the same as where the damage or strain is? Or, Is pain caused by pain-receptive nerves registering what is happening around them, via hormonal and electrical signals? Or is pain actually the nerve itself being “trapped” or damaged, yet in a volume of undamaged tissue one can feel hurts? Could the seeming volume of experienced pain-space be a partial illusion, produced by cognizing the tissue damage as some place near or overlapping with yet not spatially identical to where the “actual” damage is, in other words a case of existential-physiological discrepancy? One scenario could be, roughly, that pain “is” or “is made of” nerves getting signals about damage to tissue; another would be that pain “is” the nerves themselves being damaged or sustaining stress or injury. Maybe pain involves both? Maybe some pain is one, or the other? In terms of remembering how my heel pain started, it’s not so easy, but I love to walk an hour or two a day, and have done so for many years. I recall more than ten years ago playing football in the park, wearing what must have been the wrong sort of shoes, and upon waking the next day, having pretty serious pain in my heel. Here are some graphics that, intuitively, seem to map on to the areas where I perceive the pain to be most focal:

from bestfootdoc.com

from bestfootdoc.com

from setup.tristatehand.com

from setup.tristatehand.com

from plantar-fasciitis-elrofeet.com

from plantar-fasciitis-elrofeet.com

If I palpate my heel, I become aware of a phenomenologically complex, rich blend of pleasure and pain. I crave the sensation of pressure there, but it can be an endurance test when it happens. Does the sensation of pressure that I want reflect some body knowledge, some intuitive sense of what intervention will help my body heal? How could this be verified or falsified? It is not easy to describe the raw qualia of pain, actually. I can describe it as achey and moderately distressing when I walk around, and sharp upon palpating. Direct and forceful pressure on the heel area will make me wince, catch my breath, want to gasp or make sounds of pain/pleasure, and in general puts me in a state of heightened activation. But I love it when I can get a therapist to squeeze on it, producing what I call “pain-pleasure”:

from indyheelpaincenter.com

from indyheelpaincenter.com

This diagram below helps me map the sensations to the neuroanatomy. We need to do more of this sort of thing. This kind of representation seems to me a new area for clinical neurophenomenological research (indeed, clinical neurophenomenology in general needs much more work, searching for those terms just leads back to my site, but see the Case History section in Sean Gallagher’s How the Body Shapes the Mind).

from reconstructivefootcaredoc.com

from reconstructivefootcaredoc.com

What is producing the pain-qualia, the particular feeling? Without going too far into varying differential diagnosis, it is commonly attributed to plantar fasciitis.  There the pain would be due to nociceptive nerve fibers activated by damage to the tough, fibrous fascia that attach to the calcaneus (heel bone) being strained, or sustaining small ripped areas, and/or local nerves being compressed or trapped. A 2012 article in Lower Extremity Review states that “evidence suggests plantar fasciitis is a noninflammatory degenerative condition in the plantar fascia caused by repetitive microtears at the medial tubercle of the calcaneus.” There are quite a few opinions out there about the role of bony calcium buildups, strain from leg muscles, specific trapped nerves and so forth, and it would be interesting to find out how different aspects of reported pain qualia map on to these. Below you can see the sheetlike fascia fiber, the posterior tibial nerve, and it’s branches that enable local sensations:

from aafp.org

from aafp.org

Next: fascia and the innervation of the heel, from below:

from mollyjudge.com

from mollyjudge.com

Another view of the heel and innervation:

from mollyjudge.com

from mollyjudge.com

Below is a representation of the fascia under the skin:

from drwolgin.com

from drwolgin.com

There is a very graphic,under the skin, maybe not SFW surgeon’s-eye perspective on these structures available here. Heel pain turns out to be very common, and is evidently one of the most frequently reported medical issues. Searching online for heel pain mapping brings up a representation purportedly of 2666 patients describing where they feel heel pain: heel pain mapping I can’t find where this comes from originally and can’t speak to the methodology, rigor, or quality of the study, but the supposed data are interesting, as is the implicit idea of spatial qualia mapping:  the correspondence of experienced pain to a volume of space in the body. It also quite well represents where the pain is that I feel. The focal area seems to be where the fascia fibers attach to the calcaneus, an area that bears alot of weight, does alot of work, and is prone to overuse. So, where is the pain? Is it in the heel or the brain? Is it in the tissue, the nerve, or both? Is there a volume of flesh that contains the pain? I am going to have to think about these more, and welcome your input. What about the central nervous system that processes nociceptive afferents coming from the body? A good model of pain neurophenomenology should involve a number of cortical and subcortical areas that comprise the nociceptive neural network: -primary somatosensory cortex (S1) and secondary somatosensory cortex (S2): -insula -anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) -prefrontal cortex (PFC) -thalamus Here are some representations of the pain pathways, or the nociceptive neural network:

from Moisset and Bouhassira (2007) "Brain imaging of neuropathic pain"

from Moisset and Bouhassira (2007)

Moisett el (2009)

Moisett el (2009)

 

from Tracey and Mantyh (2012)

from Tracey and Mantyh (2012)

Broadly speaking, pain seems to be generated by tissue damage, inflammation, compromising the integrity of tissue, stress on localized regions, and so forth being processed by peripheral afferent pain pathways in the body, then phylogenetically ancient subcortical structures, and then the aforementioned cortical regions or nociceptive neural network.  As I have mentioned many times, making a robust account of how various regions of the brain communicate such that a person experiences qualia or sensory phenomenology will need to reference neurodynamics, which integrates ideas from the physics of self-organization, complexity, chaos and non-linear dynamics into biology.  It is gradually becoming apparent to many if not most workers in the cognitive neurosciences that there are a host of mechanisms regions of the brain use to send signals, and many of these are as time dependent as space dependent. Michael Cohen puts it thusly: “The way we as cognitive neuroscientists typically link dynamics of the brain to dynamics of behavior is by correlating increases or decreases of some measure of brain activity with the cognitive or emotional state we hope the subject is experiencing at the time. The primary dependent measure in the majority of these studies is whether the average amount of activity – measured through spiking, event-related-potential or -field component amplitude, blood flow response, light scatter, etc. – in a region of the brain goes up or down. In this approach, the aim is to reduce this complex and enigmatic neural information processing system to two dimensions: Space and activation (up/down). The implicit assumption is that cognitive processes can be localized to specific regions of the brain, can be measured by an increase in average activity levels, and in different experimental conditions, either operate or do not. It is naïve to think that these two dimensions are sufficient for characterizing neurocognitive function. The range and flexibility of cognitive, emotional, perceptual, and other mental processes is huge, and the scale of typical functional localization claims – on the order of several cubic centimeters – is large compared to the number of cells with unique physiological, neurochemical, morphological, and connectional properties contained in each MRI voxel. Further, there are no one-to-one mappings between cognitive processes and brain regions: Different cognitive processes can activate the same brain region, and activation of several brain regions can be associated with single cognitive processes. In the analogy of Plato’s cave, our current approach to understanding the biological foundations of cognition is like looking at shadows cast on a region of the wall of the cave without observing how they change dynamically over time.” But what of the original question? Is pain where you feel it in the body, or in the brain? It seems to me the answer must be both.  The experience of pain being localized there or a little on the left is a product of local tissue signals and receptor activation, which produces peripheral afferent nerve firing, which gets processed by spinal afferent neurodynamics, brainstem activation, thalamic gating, and then somatosensory, insular, anterior cingulated, and prefrontal cortical regions. Yet the real model of pain, one that invokes mechanisms and causes, remains elusive. And a good model of pain must account for the possibility of pain without suffering as well! For now, what I can offer are probes to get us speculating, thinking critically, and eventually building a clinical neurophenomenology of pain. If that interests you, by all means get involved.

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What do clinicians come to know about their patient’s heart sensations?

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What do clinicians come to know about their patient’s heart sensations? This is not a simple question, as it simultaneously looks at patients as people with bodily experiences, but also as humans understood as systems, as a sort of living machine. What is more intimate than our heart-beating, a familiar yet mysterious sensation we know to be at the very basis of our ongoing experience? Feeling a change in the rhythm or intensity of this fundamental aspect of our embodied existence can be very worrisome. Should clinicians believe patients who complain of cardiac rhythm changes? How accurate are people at detecting medically important heart-beat fluctuations? How should clinicians understand the relationship between symptoms as reported by the patient, and underlying physiological processes? These are complex and multifaceted issues, requiring nimble clinicians who integrate scientific knowledge as well as intuition about what the patient is experiencing bodily. Clinicans develop knowledge of their own bodies through life, and then are required to learn complex anatomical, physiological, and etiological concepts they will use to interpret their patient’s symptom reports. What patients have to say about what is happening in their bodies must be taken seriously, but not necessarily believed. The interrelated problems of how clinicians interpret patient verbal reports, reason about the relation between these reports compared to measurements and scientific models, and then make judgments about the patient’s accuracy in knowing about their own bodies are topics well worth honing in on, and to my knowledge, not throughly explored from a neurophenomenological perspective.

These acts of clinician cognition concerning their patient’s symptoms are framed by an evolving social and professional context. Modern medicine, like the Roman god Janus, stands two-faced, towards healing as an art, but also towards scientific models of disease. In the current era, what is known as “evidence-based medicine” requires an important shift in how clinicians operate, from historically rather unfettered individual judgments in some contexts, to increasingly accepting consensus-developed guidelines formulated from reviews of previous findings. Clinicans who have with great effort developed the ability to intuit diagnoses may have to defend their familiar constructs, criteria, heuristics, and practices if these are not bolstered by peer-reviewed studies, randomized clinical trials, systematic reviews, Bayesian statistical approaches to clinical problem solving, meta-analysis of previous data, and effectiveness metrics. Medical organizations can mandate “best practices” of patient care, “gold standards” of cost-effectiveness for ordering certain tests, references to efficacy criteria that must be satisfied before a program of treatment is established, and more. This ongoing process is transforming medicine, requiring that the traditional art of diagnosis based on years of education and experience be integrated with operationalized definitions, committee-approved metrics, and greater formalization, thus constraining individual opinion and practices in favor of organization-mandated standard operating procedures. Can symptoms based on an individual’s embodied experience be given proper attention in this brave new world of medicine?

I hope that more researchers would address the clinical aspects of neurophenomenology. This is a relatively new and undeveloped area. While William James and Erwin Straus were clinicians, as is Antonio Damasio, other pioneers such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Francisco Varela backgrounded medical concerns somewhat (however, if you are unaware of Varela’s haunting work at the end of his life “Intimate Distances -Fragments for a Phenomenology of Organ Transplantation“, it is a must-read.) Shawn Gallagher has made an excellent synthesis of philosophy and clinical studies in “How the Body Shapes the Mind“, a work that bears greater attention from the small community of neurophenomenology researchers.

For my part, I shall focus in on a particular area, palpitations, where changes towards operationalizing and standardizing the definition of “clinically significant” symptoms are occurring, with the aim of modeling the relationship between patient symptom reports and “significant” arrhythmias as revealed on ECG measurements. I will especially focus on how the predictive utility and accuracy of the reports can be operationalized, and attempt to represent for one domain how patients’ verbalization of their phenomenological state can be “mapped” onto measurements of cardiac rhythm abnormalities.

How to operationalize the “body-knowledge” construct so it can be analyzed and measured

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I started using the term “body-knowledge” a few years back as a way to label the extent to which people can accurately report symptoms or interior sensations. It is not as of 2010 a popular term. The earliest citation of the term I know of is from a clinical neurology paper by Sirigu, Grafman, Bressler, and Sunderland, (1991): Multiple representations contribute to body knowledge processing: Evidence from a case of autotopagnosia

“Body knowledge” does quite not have the same meaning as “embodied cognition”, “body image”,”body schema”, “interoception”, “visceral perception”, or even “body cognition”, though there is considerable overlap. I typically use the concept body-knowledge to emphasize the verbal reporting of internal states. My epistemology teacher years ago taught me a great idea:

To know something, you have to know that you know it, and to know that you know it, you have to be able to say it.

I wouldn’t defend that as the end-all be-all theory of knowledge, but it works as a heuristic at the least. For now, I use “body-knowledge” to refer to how well people can know and verbally report on what is happening to their physiological states.

To analytically probe this construct, I started looking very deeply at a particular domain: symptom reporting about cardiovascular processes. I have found some useful results from earlier studies that serve as a guide to help approximate how accurate people are when they feel and report palpitations: their heart is racing, they feel irregular beats, heart thumping or pounding, skipped beats, and so forth. Evidently a fair amount of the time people suffering from panic disorder or anxiety “cognize” otherwise benign sensations and report heart problems, and such false positives adds a great deal of expense to the healthcare system.

Symptom report accuracy is a largely unexplored area for the young field of neurophenomenology: how much of what is happening inside our bodies is accessible to our minds? Very little of the existing neurophenomenology literature deals with these issues.

How can the “body-knowledge accuracy” construct be operationalized, analyzed and measured? For the particular domain of palpitations reporting, here are some useful core metrics:

From ‘The Validity of Bodily Symptoms in Medical Outpatients,” (Barsky, 2000) Chapter 19 in The Science of Self Report (Stone, A, ed): -When patients complaining of palpitations undergo 24-hour, ambulatory, electrocardiographic monitoring, 39% to 85% manifest some rhythm disturbance; the vast majority of these arrhythmias are benign, clinically insignificant, and do not merit treatment). Although as many as 75% of these patients with arrhythmias report their presenting symptom during monitoring; in only about 15% of cases do these symptom reports coincide with their arrhythmias.

From Barsky, Ahern, Delamater, Clancy & Bailey (1997): -145 consecutive outpatients referred to an ambulatory electrocardiography (Holter) laboratory for evaluation of palpitations were accrued, along with a comparison sample of 70 nonpatient volunteers who had no cardiac symptoms and no history of cardiac disease. A symptom was considered accurate when it followed within 30 seconds after any demonstrated arrhythmia.

-average positive predictive value (PPV)… is equal to the number of reported symptoms that were preceded by an arrhythmia divided by the total number of symptoms reported (true positives / [true positives + false positives]).

-Ninety-nine palpitation patients (68%) reported at least one palpitation during monitoring. Among those patients who were symptomatic, the mean number of diary symptoms reported in 24 hours was 3.7. The mean PPV for all symptom reports among palpitation patients was 0.399, compared with a mean PPV = .118 for the nonpatient volunteer sample (p = .01).

-the palpitation descriptors most likely to be accompanied by electrocardiographic abnormalities are heart stopping, fluttering, and irregular heartbeat. The least predictive descriptive terms used by the patients were racing and pounding.

-34% of the symptomatic palpitation patients and 11% of the asymptomatic comparison subjects were classified as accurate reporters

questions about information-processing theories of body-knowledge

cognitive science, embodiment, introspection, symptom reports

Cognitive science explains mind and brain in terms of computation, information-processing, and representationalism: the ability of a cognitive system to change internal microstructure so as to correspond with important features of the internal or external world. One could do worse than to sum up the cognitivist model of the mind as “computations over representations”, in which features of the world or body are coded by the brain as symbols.

Whatever merits this “cognitivist” research program may have for models of syntactical production, the consolidation of short-term memories into long-term, the recognition of familiar faces, logical problem-solving, and other phenomena, I suspect that critical aspects of how people have knowledge of their bodies are not adequately accounted for by cognitivist approaches. I maintain that a careful analysis of the evidence reveals cognitive science has a flawed approach to modeling how well people know what is happening inside their bodies, and what mental and biological processes underlay this knowledge.

There are many aspects of psychological life that have never been the focus of cognitive science, and this absence is at it’s foundation the Cartesian rift at the heart of objective models that depict mind as machine. People experience a world of meaning framed by temporality and grounded in the lived body, but cognitive science focuses on a subpersonal realm of symbols, algorithms, information processing, representation, where mind is reduced to computation. To the extent that this approach yields results, it should be pursued, but cognition outstrips what cognitivism can model. There are aspects of cognition that are characterized by the existential questions, embodied experience, consciousness, meaning, and other phenomena, but it is precisely these that objectivistic, Cartesian cognitive science has not, for the most part, tried to explain. The difference is that of between worlds, like the gap between music grasped as experienced and meaningful, compared to music understood as a system that can be analyzed through abstract system-centered objectivistic modeling. It is true that science is typically understood in the latter terms, but neurophenomenology aims at a dialog between psychological life as experienced and cognition understood as a mechanism produced by te brain. There is not an immediate move toward reduction nor a premature assumption that embodied experience can be automatically modeled as a byproduct of systems.

In everyday life, and especially in conditions of sickness or disease, people notice aspects, qualities, and states of their bodies, and seek to get information about and from their bodies. Getting information about body-state can involve perception of a symptom, focused attention or introspection toward specific body regions or parts, remembering the way one’s body felt previously and comparing this to a current assessment, attempting to verbally express feelings about the way one’s body seems, paying close attention to a body part that is usually indistinct or in the background but suddenly is painful, and many other similar activities. Consider the following examples:

• a subject in a clinical trial of a medical device is asked whether or not they notice anything unusual or different about the way their body feels, and if so, to rate how much on a numeric scale;

• a person taking psychiatric medication for depression tells their psychiatrist about adverse side effects, such as a decline in libido, and an inability to grieve the loss of a loved one while at a funeral;

• someone who is drinking alcohol may calibrate their intake based on the memory of nausea from previous episodes of over-consumption;

• an obese woman is reported by American media to have been shocked upon finding she was in labor and on the verge of giving birth, having no previous knowledge of her pregnancy.

• a person who is being massaged, when asked to describe the sensation, reports a mixture of significant pleasure and mild pain when pressure is applied to very specific regions of their upper-back

In these and in similar cases, individuals involved are sensing, perceiving, remembering, and judging about their symptoms, body states, feelings, and sensations, and in some examples, reporting their experience to others. These are cognitive phenomena, but can ideas derived from symbolic logic and representationalist epistemology suffice to explain them? I would argue that there are a number of open questions about the utility of information-processing theories of body-knowledge.

Are the introspective reports, assessments, and statements generated by people about their body-state generally accurate, or not? What mechanisms account for the accuracy, or lack thereof?

To what extent do legacy concepts from cognitive science or information-processing models help or hinder the development of an understanding of how people access information and gain knowledge about their bodies?

How are we to understand the meaning(s) of the term “information” used to explain how and how well people know their own mental and physiological states? What is the relationship of “information” in the sense of physiological or biological systems to consciously reportable sensation, such that a person is getting information about their body state?

Are there many kinds of “information” involved in these models of internal state perception or “body cognition” found in clinical neurology, medicine, experimental psychology, and theoretical cognitive neuroscience? Or is there but one type of “information”, with different qualities or aspects that are described or measured in different ways?

more on the status of introspection in psychology and in neuroscience

cognitive science, introspection

An index of the status of introspection within psychology comes from Medin, Markman, and Ross (2004) in the textbook Cognitive Psychology, which notes (pg.20) that:

Although introspection is not an infallible window to the mind, psychological research is leading to principles that suggest when verbal reports are likely to accurately reflect thinking

These perspectives all can be said to implicitly or explicitly challenge what I shall call the “received view” or the “overly skeptical view”, which is an interpretation of the Nisbett and Wilson work that goes beyond what those authors’ famous paper actually said. While it is the case that the “Telling More than we can Know” Nisbett and Wilson paper argued persuasively that introspection-based reports of subjects asked to retrospect on the causes of their behavior are generally not accurate, these authors made a point of not dismissing the value of introspection and verbal reporting on the contents of cognition one is aware of , such as sensation or perception and “private facts”. But the “received view” of their research all too often neglects or ignores the more nuanced and balanced view about introspection of the authors, as well as that of other cognitive scientists who carefully investigated the issues involved, such as Anders Ericsson and Herbert Simon (1993).   This is an important concept: see Eric Schwitzgebel’s excellent take on the “Nisbett-Wilson myth“.

What is the most important concept to take away from the controversies about introspection? Probably it is that insofar as researchers want to be able to take advantage of all possible tools and data sources to make sense of the complex, enigmatic processes characterizing body knowledge, they should follow the example set by many physicians and some experimentalists, and be willing to get data by asking subjects or patients for their observations on body state. But here I will go one step further, and assert that the accuracy, or lack of accuracy, of verbal report data relative to other data, can serve as that which must be explained by a comprehensive and robust model of personal or self-reportable knowledge of the body. Doing so would require experiments where verbally reported data might be compared to, and possibly integrated with, data from external sources, such as from brain measurement: “neurophenomenology” in operationalized form.

One such effort came from a trio of researchers interested in assessing whether introspective data on pain had measurable neural correlates (Coghill, McHaffie, Yen, 2003, pg. 8538):

Using psychophysical ratings to define pain sensitivity and functional magnetic resonance imaging to assess brain activity, we found that highly sensitive individuals exhibited more frequent and more robust pain-induced activation of the primary somatosensory cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, and prefrontal cortex than did insensitive individuals. By identifying objective neural correlates of subjective differences, these findings validate the utility of introspection and subjective reporting as a means of communicating a first-person experience

This forward-looking research in effect turns behaviorism on its head: instead of verbal reports being rejected or at best tolerated within the overall context of strict objectivity, the very phenomenon the model seeks to explain is “subjective”!

Verbal report data: psychologists may be skeptical, but clinicians are more practical

clinical neurophenomenology, cognitive science, introspection, medicine, symptom reports

Cognitive neuroscience and psychology needs to account for  verbal report data from people about their body states. In perceptual psychology and psychophysics experiments, in cognitive studies of human problem-solving, in clinical trials of drug efficacy and safety, in phenomenological-psychological investigations into the thematics of body experience, researchers routinely ask subjects or patients to answer questions. This is so common that its significance is perhaps under-appreciated. Science, at least in a narrow sense,  is conventionally understood to be based on objectively observable facts, not subjective opinions. But certain phenomena can not only be observed from the outside, as part of a system, but can also be reported on by people from the inside, as perceived or experiential events.

This regular use of the human self-reporting capacity is more remarkable in the light of intellectual history.  “Orthodox” cognitive science developed in the era of behaviorist dominance, and inherited certain skepticism about the trustworthiness of verbal reports, which are viewed as being sources of data, but not “privileged.” This stance indicates a rejection of older philosophical and psychological traditions that emphasized the use of introspection. Nonetheless, even in the time of behaviorist hegemony, psychologists still asked subjects questions in perception experiments, and clinicians have always used patient assessments to gain insight (Nahmias, 2002). While certain path-breaking cognitive scientists and psychologists explored the nature of introspection, and worked out the circumstances in which verbal reports could be authoritative and true accounts of aspects of cognitive processes (Erickson and Simon, 1991), (Ericsson, Chase, and Simon, 1979), the results of other widely cited experiments have been interpreted to denigrate introspective data, especially that of Nisbett and Wilson’s (1977) “Telling More than we can know” paper. Their research has been interpreted to indicate, for instance, that subjects made demonstrably inaccurate judgments about their underlying mental states because human beings apparently have little or no direct introspective access to the underlying cognitive processes of the mind (pg. 233):

The accuracy of subjective reports is so poor as to suggest that any introspective access that may exist is not sufficient to produce generally correct or reliable reports.”

The interpretation of their data featured assertions that are now influential:  subjects lack  introspective access to the causal relationship between stimuli controlled by the experimenter and the verbal reports they produce. They are unable to accurately report which stimuli affected their responses. Rather, these verbal reports of effects of stimuli are based on unvalidated belief (such as naïve “folk psychological” theories about the causal connections between the stimuli and their response). Furthermore, if the reports on stimulus-response relationships are correct, it is because their naïve theories happen to be correct, and not because introspection gave them any privileged access to information. The upshot can be summarized as: subjects in situations with variables controlled by scientists make introspective judgments about why they behave in a particular manner or think a certain way, they state this explanation verbally to an experimenter, who can show the explanation to be false: (pg. 243)

“In order to test subject ability to report influences on their associative behavior, we had 81 male introductory psychology students memorize a list of word pairs. Some of these word pairs were intended to generate associative processes that would elicit certain target words in a word association task to be performed at a later point in the experiment. For example, subjects memorized the word pair “ocean-moon” with the expectation that when they were later asked to name a detergent, they would be more likely to give the target “Tide” than would subjects who had not previously been exposed to the word pairs….Immediately following the word association task, subjects were asked in open-ended form why they thought they had given each of their responses in the word association task. Despite the fact that nearly all subjects could recall nearly all of the words pairs, subjects almost never mentioned a word pair cue as a reason for giving a particular target response. Instead subjects focused on some distinctive feature of the target (“Tide is the best-known detergent”), some personal meaning of it (“My mother uses tide”), or an affective reaction to it (“I like the Tide box”).

The influence of this research has had the practical effect of renewing suspicions among psychologists and other researchers about introspective data, even if such methods continue to be used (Jack and Roepstorff, 2003) and despite the balanced view of Nisbett and Wilson where introspection has some utility regarding “sensations and/or private facts”, which takes into consideration the longtime use of introspective data as a method in psychology. Cognitive scientists, psychologists, physicians, and others can adopt their pragmatic distinction between the contents of cognition, such as sensations and emotions which can indeed be known and verbally reported, and the underlying causes, the information-processing or cognitive processes, which remain epistemologically inscrutable to introspection.

Yet while clinical medicine often regards introspective data with caution, it nonetheless uses it pragmatically. For instance, the standard neuropsychology text Clinical Neuropsychology (Heilman and Valenstein, 2003) states (pg.5)

at times, patients’ observations of their own mental state may not only be helpful but necessary.”

This implies that it is a standard clinical methodology to use introspective data, and that patients have some useful access to their own minds.

This data-collection method of asking subjects and patients for self-reports is routinely used, according to psychologist Arthur Stone (Stone, 2000) (pg. 297):

“In both clinical practice and in research, the primary method of obtaining information about physical symptomology is through self-reports. Every day, thousands upon thousands of health care providers ask their patients to describe how they are generally feeling and too discuss specific symptoms. Patients present their doctors with panoply of global states (“I feel lousy,” “I am fatigued,” “I don’t feel right”) to very concrete descriptions (“I have a sharp pain in my right knee that is worse on awakening”). Information from these interviews, along with various medical tests, provides the basis for treatment and for the evaluation of its efficacy. In medical research, information of the same sort is obtained with questionnaires and structured interviews. These data-collection methods may provide a more systematic way of gathering physical symptom information, but regardless of the mode of data collection, the information is self-reported. Thus, reports of physical symptoms may be considered the mainstay of medical practice and research”

the legacy of Cartesian “objectivity” makes it hard to understand patient verbal reports

clinical neurophenomenology, embodiment, introspection, medicine, symptom reports

Psychiatrist Allan Beveridge (2002) hones in on a facet of the patient-physician relationship relevant to neurophenomenology: the over-adoption in medicine of the scientific attitude of objectivity towards phenomena. While entirely appropriate in the many research contexts, this may make understanding the personal body-knowledge of the patient more difficult (pg. 101):

In the mental state examination, a standard method of describing the clinical encounter is to contrast the patient’s supposedly ‘subjective’ account with the doctor’s ‘objective’ description. In this model, the doctor is granted a privileged position: the clinician’s perspective is taken to be superior to that of the patient. The doctor’s objective approach is considered neutral, scientific and representing the truth of the matter. In contrast, the patient’s subjective report is regarded as unreliable, distorted and potentially false. The lowly status of the subjective perspective is further emphasized by the frequent use of the accompanying prefix, merely. On reflection, this dichotomy is an extraordinary one. It is held that the doctor is an authority on the patient’s inner experiences. The doctor knows more about how the patient is thinking and feeling than the patient him-/herself

This “scientific” medical stance towards patient subjective reporting is consistent with the Cartesian heritage of the sciences of the mind. The implications, hidden or unexamined commitments should be critically examined if the verbal reports about patient body-states are to be better grasped by science and medicine. To the extent cognitive science, psychology, neuroscience, and medical fields uncritically base their methodologies on unexamined premises, certain problems may appear just due to the very choices of what is considered “data”. The relegation of patient verbal reports to the category of “merely subjective” allows for Cartesian assumptions about cognition to create difficulties at the outset of any research project attempting to model personal knowledge of the body. It may be that the very categories of subject and object, or scientific knowledge vs. subjective or “folk psychological” naïve theories of the body, present foundational problems for understanding how neurophysiological processes relate to verbally reportable knowledge of the body. But as a practical matter, health care professionals must simply cope with patient statements as one more data source (Ersser and Atkins, 2000, pg. 68):

Clinical decisions involve information of a necessary type and quality. Professionals take account of both objective and subjective data during the clinical assessment process to decide on a patient’s health care need and care plan. The difficulty lies in professionals understanding how best to reconcile their objective perspective with that of the patient, when formulating clinical judgments

Before a doctor revives technical training, he or she is a person with experiences of health and sickness. The verbal reports of patients are interpreted by professionals with their own history of embodiment. To what extent does their personal body knowledge consciously or unconsciously affect their clinical intuition about the accuracy of patient verbal reports? Does expert knowledge of the body gained from studying anatomy and physiology allow for better knowledge of one’s own body? Such questions point to our current rather murky understanding of embodied cognition, underscoring the need for models capturing richer, more subtle aspects of experience, cognition, and brain.

symptom verbal reports and existential-physiological discrepancy

clinical neurophenomenology, interoception, introspection, medicine, symptom reports, visceral perception

While the anatomical basis of how nerve projections enable perception of the body is rather well known, physicians confront situations where patient verbal reporting about symptoms does not match models based on neurophysiological mechanisms. For instance, the Merck Manual Medical Library (2009) states:

“Painful stimuli from thoracic organs can produce discomfort      described as pressure, gas, burning, aching, and sometimes sharp pain. Because the sensation is visceral in origin, many patients deny they are having pain and insist it is merely discomfort”

The Mayo Clinic Heart Book (Gersh, 2000) describes the concept of uncomfortable feeling of thumping inside the chest known as palpitations, but does so from the point of view of patients (pg. 38):

“Although the apparent cause of the thumping in the chest would seem to be the heartbeat, this is not always the case. Some people have a normal heart rate during their palpitations. Presumably, they are either anxious or experiencing chest wall twitching that is mistaken for heartbeats”

Situations where the “folk physiological” (see Churchland, 1989, for a description of expert knowledge vs. folk beliefs) understanding of the body is apparently falsified by science can be labeled examples of existential-physiological discrepancy (Laughlin, McManus, D’Aquili, 1990). Mismatches between body-as-experienced compared to the “objective body” of scientific medicine and physiology (including the feeling of “phantom limbs” by amputees) are based on the idea that people may often have very limited “true” access to physiological processes. A more commonly presented variant or subset of this principle is the idea of “referred pain”, where the region causing understood to be causing the pain is spatially removed from the area where the patient senses it.

The Merck Manual (2009) gives an example: sometimes pain felt in one area of the body does not accurately represent where the problem is, because the pain is referred there from another area. Pain can be referred because signals from several areas of the body often travel through the same nerve pathways in the spinal cord and brain. For example, pain from a heart attack may be felt in the neck, jaws, arms, or abdomen. Pain from a gallbladder attack may be felt in the back of the shoulder.

Jack and Roepstorff on introspection

cognitive science, introspection, symptom reports

From Trusting the Subject (2003), Anthony Jack and Andreas Roepstorff write:

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“The unique challenge facing a science of consciousness is that that the best instrument available for measuring experience depends on cognitive processes internal to the subject. So just how much faith can we place in the capacity of the mind to understand itself? In principle, the construction of a maximally robust methodology for introspective evidence would require a detailed understanding of the operation of introspective processes — the processes that mediate the acquisition of introspective knowledge and underlie the production of introspective reports”

And:

“It is important to realize that no principled problem stands in the way of the scientific assessment of various types of introspective evidence. The testing of the reliability, consistency and validity of various types of introspective report measures lies well within the orbit of currently available methods. A measure may be called ‘reliable’ if it yields the same results when tested in multiple sessions over time (‘test–retest reliability’) and across individuals (a cousin of ‘inter-rater’ and ‘inter-observer’ reliability). Of course, subjects’ reports may differ, and so appear to be unreliable, simply because their internal mental processes and states vary. Thus it is critical to establish well controlled experimental conditions for eliciting reports. The considerable advances in behavioural science since the time of the Introspectionists offers experimenters considerable advantages in this regard (see Ericsson, this volume). Not only do these advances make it much more probable that experimenters can establish conditions under which introspective measures can be shown to be reliable, they also provide much greater insight into the behavioural and neural correlates of experiential phenomena.

A measure may be called ‘consistent’ when it can be shown that the results are not due to specific features of the measurement technique. Tests of consistency provide a means of checking that the observed effect is not due to a methodological artefact. Thus we might test the consistency of introspective  evidence by comparing immediate forced-choice button-press reports with retrospective and open-ended verbal reports. In this way we might establish, for instance: that the results of forced-choice button-press reports have not been influenced by variations in the criterion for response or by automatisation of response such that they no longer constitute true introspective reports; and that retrospective reports have not been distorted by forgetting or memory interference effects.

‘Validity’ is the most important factor to establish, yet it is also the most theoretically complex, and a particularly vexed issue in cognitive science. A measure is validated when it can be shown to accurately reflect the phenomenon it purports to measure. Validity is complex because scientific measures are often simultaneously interpreted as providing evidence for phenomena at a number of
different levels. A rough characterisation of three major sources of evidence in cognitive science might read as follows:

-Data from functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) serves most directly as evidence of cerebral blood flow (which has been validated), less directly as evidence for neural activity (which is in the process of being properly validated), and least directly as a means of identifying and localising specific cognitive functions (far from well validated).

– Behavioural measures (e.g. the averaging of reaction time measures over multiple trials) serve most directly as evidence for stable patterns of behaviour, less directly as a means of assessing information processing, and least directly as means of establishing the existence and operation of specific cognitive functions.

-Introspective reports serve most directly as evidence about the beliefs that subjects have about their own experience, less directly as evidence concerning the existence of experiential phenomena, and least directly as evidence concerning the operation of specific cognitive functions.