Some of you might know that I've wanted to get a tattoo for quite some time. Until recently, though, certain intervening circumstances prevented me from acting on this desire. With the recent departure of said circumstances, I've now got a tattoo. Well, I've now got MOST of a tattoo; it still needs about 45 minutes of touch up. My first session was a few weeks ago and took about two hours; the artist did the outlines, as well as the text. I don't want to go into too much detail till I post a picture, which will happen as soon as I leave my apartment today and get someone to photograph it for me (it's on my back and I can't seem to get the angle right). Last night, I had a second three hour (or so) session, which consisted of coloring it in and shading it.
The first session was reasonably painful--more painful than I'd expected, in fact--and I knew the second would be worse. In preparation for the coloring session, I took 100 mg of morphine. Research today revealed that the tablets I took were in fact time release and designed for long term pain management, which might help explain my observations.
My father told me that I was a pussy for taking pain killers before a tattoo session, a charge to which I readily admitted. I have a low pain threshold, and I mean REALLY low. Those who know me particularly well can attest to this. The question that occurred to me while I was having needles jammed into my back for three hours was this: what does it mean to have a low pain tolerance? Suppose you and I both go in for the same tattoo, and get it in the same place. We both report pain, but I report the intensity as (say) a 7, and you report it as (say) a 4. What's going on here? It's clear that pain, as a quale, is an inherently subjective phenomenon, and trying to make it objective by way of such a scale is difficult at best; still, it does seem reasonable to assert, given out behavior (shut up, Dan) that we're experiencing different levels of discomfort.
Part of this is undoubtedly attributable to facts about the differences between my central nervous system and yours--maybe you have fewer nerves on your back than I do, but is that all there is to it? Let's think of another example: suppose we try to equalize our intensity reports. We fire up our trusty Pain Machine, and take turns at it. Suppose that, just by correlating our reports (which is really the best we can do at this point) we find out that I report an intensity of 7 at setting 4, and you report the same intensity at setting 6. Now, is it really fair to say that I have a lower tolerance for pain? It seems at least possible that both of us are experiencing precisely the same sensations (or close enough to call them the same), so what is it exactly that I have a lower tolerance for? It's true that a different stimulation will produce a different level of sensation in me than in you, but if that is true then we're both experiencing the same level of pain, albeit as a result of different causal factors.
Is it really fair, then, to say that I have a low pain tolerance?
Here's the tattoo in all its glory: