It's language, stupid!

Pain – a top-down story

Let’s represent the process of a pain travelling from the leg, through the nervous system and into the brain as the line below:


But if this is the case for pain, then why do we not experience, say, blood, which also travels through the body and into the brain. Or skin, for example, or anything else that is physical. Pain seems to reach into the brain and poke us right in the back of the eye as if to say ‘oy, it’s me pain, take notice!’

So what is on the end of that chain of physical processes of pain, from the leg to the brain, that makes us sit up and take notice? What is it that brings it into the mind? I would suggest that it is language which facilitates this. Language is the focusing system which enables physical processes to be captured ‘top-down’ in the conscious mind.


Language plugs the end of the physical chain. Without language it would just be a bunch of neurons getting excited in the brain and banging around off each other. It is only language which can terminate the physical and make it linguistic. Language converts the bottom-up physical processes into a top-down ready-made form that can be manipulated and utilised. So we can then have thoughts such as ‘the pain is excruciating’ or ‘the pain is getting worse I need to see a doctor’. Without language we would just be mindless robots reacting to the environment and behaving in kind. We would not have any conscious experience of life. We would not experience pain.  

“Liz Tears” by Bill Young is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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