By Brad Harrub, Ph.D.
Pain has been a favorite tool that atheists use to criticize Christians, as they question God’s existence. However, recent visual studies of neurons growing and communicating in the brain have unveiled that the pain network is one of the most unappreciated systems in the human body and they reveal the handiwork of an incredible Designer.
Lets start with the obvious—pain is real and anyone who is blessed to live a couple of decades on this earth knows the reality of it. Pain does not discriminate; it strikes every color and socioeconomic group. Oftentimes the tears of pain blind those who deny God’s existence or those who struggle with their faith, and therefore they have trouble “seeing” God. But He is still there, even in the midst of our pain. In his book The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis wrote, “Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
It is often the nagging sensation of pain that forces humans to finally seek treatment. In his best-selling book, The Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck reminded us “The symptoms and the illness are not the same thing. The illness exists long before the symptoms. Rather than being the illness, the symptoms are the beginnings of its cures.” (emp. added). Pain is usually the one thing that gets our attention long enough to alert us something is wrong so that we seek medical care. However, the truth is we still do not like it—and getting rid of pain is a multi-billion dollar industry.
To truly appreciate pain and the latest discoveries from science, we need to consider it on a microscopic level. Think for a moment what must occur for your brain to detect a painful sensation from your toe. The somatosensory cortex of the brain is responsible for conscious perception of touch, pressure, pain, temperature, and movement. There are no “pain cells” in your body. Instead, God designed pain receptors throughout the human body that are wired into the somatosensory cortex in the brain. The placement of these pain receptors did not happen by mere happenstance. Instead, they were specifically placed there to optimize our ability to touch, run, play instruments, love, laugh, etc.
Skin sensitivity is defined as the absolute threshold of touch. Absolute threshold of touch is the smallest level of energy required by an external stimulus to be detectable by the human senses and is often measured in grams per square millimeter of skin surface. To determine the absolute threshold of touch, volunteers are often blindfolded and then the stimulus is increased until the volunteer feels it. In Philip Yancey’s powerful book, Where is God When it Hurts?, Yancey gave several examples:
- Tip of the tongue: sensitive to 2 grams of pressure
- Fingers: Sensitive to 3 grams of pressure
- Back of the hand: Sensitive to 12 grams of pressure
- Sole of the feet: Sensitive to 250 grams of pressure
Thus our skin—a single organ—displays a very wide range to sensitivity. Imagine if your foot sent your brain a pressure report every time you took a step—imagine how tiring that would be to your brain!
But not only does skin need to be able to detect sensitivity, it also needs to accurately report pain. This is known as the absolute threshold for pain. A common method for measuring the absolute threshold for pain is to apply a needle with increasing pressure from a syringe until the volunteer experiences pain. Again, Philip Yancey noted the following thresholds:
- Cornea of the eye: Sensitive to 3 grams of pressure
- Back of hand: 100 grams produces painful sensation
- Sole of the feet: 200 grams produces painful sensation
- Fingers: 300 grams produces painful sensation
Conceptually I think we understand this, but I don’t think we appreciate it very much. Consider what it feels like when an eyelash is irritating your cornea. However, that same eyelash would probably not even be felt on the back of the hand or the feet. Notice the extreme contrast in the fingers: they are sensitive to 3 grams of pressure, but it takes 200 grams to produce a painful sensation. This allows someone to play a musical instrument with sensitive fingers while at the same time not sending a pain message to the brain every time guitar strings are plucked.
Or imagine if the feet sent a painful message to the brain anytime they experienced 3 grams of pressure (like the cornea). Every time you walked or ran your brain would be constantly alerting you of “pain.” Imagine the frustration if you were playing tennis or golf and every time you hit the ball it sent a pain sensation to your brain.
So exactly how does your body know detect and communicate the difference? In August 2016, two neuroscientist from Max Plank Florida Institute for Neuroscience published a landmark study that has begun to shed light on how nerve cells grow and communicate with one another (see http://science.sciencemag.org/content/early/2016/08/10/science.aaf5206.full). Studying the mechanism of how neurons form and are distributed has been challenging in the past due to a lack of reliable methods that could trigger, monitor, and visualize changes in the synapse—the small junction between two adjoining nerve cells. These two neuroscientists were able to visualize how nerve cells communicate. They were able to record—in real time, using fine-scale optical techniques—the formation of new synapses between nerve cells. They have given visual proof of the “plasticity” in the brain. When the body feels pain there are physical changes between nerve cells that takes place in order for you to sense pain.
Known commonly as plasticity, this concept simply means that the brain is not as “hard-wired” or permanently fixed as we once believed. One of the properties of plastic is flexibility—many jars and containers are currently made out of plastic so that they will not shatter when dropped. The brain was once considered to be rigid, like Ball jars used for canning—but we now know the brain is “plastic” and flexible to reorganize itself. Research has shown that the brain is able to remodel its connections in order to adjust the organism’s response to changing conditions. In his classic textbook, Neurobiology, Gordon Shepherd has noted:
The inability to generate new neurons might imply that the adult nervous system is a static, “hard-wired” machine. This is far from the truth. Although new neurons cannot be generated, each neuron retains the ability to form new processes and new synaptic connections (Shepherd, 1994).
Interestingly, since this text was printed, additional research has even documented new nerve growth within certain areas of the brain. These cortical rearrangements that occur are not as simple as unplugging a lamp and plugging it into another socket. The changes observed by researchers indicate that if the brain was represented by a home electrical system, then many of the wires within the walls would be pulled out, rewired to different connections, different rooms, new outlets would appear, and some would even carry different voltages.
Imagine someone arguing that all of the electrical wiring in your home happened by chance—and furthermore, that wiring completely changes occasionally depending on the demands of individuals in the home. That is the situation atheists find themselves trying to defend as they continue to claim pain disproves a loving God.
Yet, most people respond that they would rather not experience any pain. Modern writers look at pain as evil and something to be avoided at all cost—almost calling God into question for its very existence. However, in earlier centuries, theologians accepted pain as a natural part of life—a reminder that this world is not our home.
Think you prefer a world with no pain? Ashlyn Blocker was born without pain receptors—she literally cannot feel pain (see http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/18/magazine/ashlyn-blocker-feels-no-pain.html). She lives in a world where she doesn’t know if she is being attacked by a colony of fire ants or stung by wasps.
Or what about one of the oldest diseases recorded in medicine—leprosy? Leprosy is a long-term infection caused by Mycobaterium leprae. It is mentioned frequently in God’s Word. For instance, in Leviticus 13, the Bible gives laws concerning leprosy. In the New Testament, we read of an occasion where Jesus healed an individual suffering from this dreaded disease (Matthew 8:1-3).
For a long time it was believed that this disease caused massive sores and resulted in fingers and toes falling off. Thanks to research from individuals like Dr. Paul Brand, we know today that leprosy results in a lack of ability to feel pain and thus loss of parts of extremities due to repeated injuries or infection due to unnoticed wounds (see Pain: The Gift Nobody Wants by Brand and Yancey).
Leprosy affects the nerves that send pain sensation to the brain. If those nerves do not work then the individual does not recognize if there is a pressure sore, infection, or trauma to the hands or feet. Dr. Brand witnessed this phenomenon in many of his patients firsthand, but he could not figure out why they would lose fingers and toes during the night. He had many patients show up in the morning with fresh wounds who had simply lain in bed all night. After researching and studying many of his patients he discovered the problem: rats. Rats were entering the patient’s rooms at night and gnawing off fingers and toes. Without any pain sensation the patients would just sleep through the night and wake up to discover the missing appendages. People suffering from leprosy would love the ability to feel pain.
Dr. Paul Brand received millions of dollars in scientific grants to try and build an artificial pain network for leprosy patients; however, after years of trying he finally gave up. The cost to try and produce painful sensations just in one area (e.g., the hand) would have been astronomical, and still would have been a very inferior substitute for the real thing.
Atheists argue that pain is evidence against the existence of God. Humanist professors ask: “Couldn’t God have done better?” The reality is the pain-network shows the handiwork of an incredible Designer. Scientists have now visualized microscopic synaptic changes that must occur for this complex network to function properly. These changes don’t occur by chance. Yes, pain is real—a real reminder and everyday proof that God exists, and that Jesus is preparing a place for you to live in eternity without any pain.