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Can pain be reinterpreted?


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#1 Raina

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Posted 12 November 2006 - 05:42 AM

From the latest BSG thread:
On the latest ep of BSG, a character is being tortured and is told that pain is just a firing of synapses interpreted a certain way in the brain, and that he can reinterpret those signals.

Based on my (limited) knowledge of pain detection, I don't think that sounds right; pain is detected by nerves called nociceptors, while other stimuli are detected by other types of nerves. One example (that I just learned in class actually) is pain from heat: below the pain threshold, the regular thermoreceptor nerve picks up the heat stimulus; however, once it reached the temperature at which it causes pain, the heat stimulus is detected by the nociceptor nerve, which causes pain.
Since painful stimuli are detected by a different type of nerve than non-painful stimuli, I can't see how someone could manage to convince themselves that it was anything other than pain; I can see someone managing to zone out enough to ignore it, but to feel it as a whole different stimulus (iirc, HarveySix was telling him that he could feel it as pleasure) doesn't seem possible.

Can anyone shed light on this? I don't want to ask my neuroscience prof because he's a bit of a jerk and I don't want him to laugh at me. :unsure:

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#2 Orpheus

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Posted 12 November 2006 - 10:26 AM

This was something I personally experimented a great deal with in my youth, believing it would be a life skill (I wish I'd kept in better practice).  Yes, pain absolutely can be reinterpreted as being less noxious, and even pleasant. In fact, you've probably experienced it many ways in your daily life. Have you ever deliberately run a painfully hot bath, and then "relaxed yourself" into enjoying it?

Another trivial example is culinary spice: hot (capiscum) peppers are undeniably painful to "naive" tasters, but many of us have learned to not just tolerate it, but interpret it as pleasant.

(I make a culinary distinction between "true" peppers of the genus Piper (e.g. peppercorns, black pepper) and Capiscum or "chile/chilli" peppers, ranging from bland to literally blistering. I use the US/Mex 1-L spelling, rather than the 2-L's favored elsewhere)

Children of cultures with very spicy cuisines must *learn* to tolerate painful and sometime blistering levels of chile (and are generally fed milder foods until they do), as must emigrants who are genetically "ethnic", but grew up on blander European cuisines. Meanwhile many people of pure European extraction (e.g. many Brits and Texans) enjoy levels of capsaicin that would literally blister and burn other members of their own families.

One might attribute tolerance to purely physiological factors (e.g. downregulation of nociceptors, which does indeed occur to some degree), but interestingly, I've noticed that the degree of loss of tolerance is often context- (dish-) dependent. A certain level of capsaicin may cause pain or even temporary injury in one dish, but not in another

Tolerance and enjoyment are two different lessons (or "reprogrammings", if you will). When I was growing up, my parents preferred an excruciating level of pepper and weren't particularly interested in "protecting" me from it after I was a few years old. I learned to tolerate quite a high level of pepper "heat", but it was just a meaningless sensation to me -- I never saw its appeal. In my 20s, my tolerance began to exceed my parents, but I still didn't prefer those high levels (except in a few dishes, like chili); in my 30s, for some reason, I suddenly began to enjoy pepper, and my parents learned to fear any dish I deemed "hot". (My younger sister, who grew up more sensitive to peppers than I, because my parents didn't use as much pepper when she was growing up, went off the deep end: today, there aren't many dishes that she won't slather with crushed red chiles or tabasco [which neither of us really considers hot sauce, anyway].)

Every experienced cook learns to deal with other kinds of heat, too: if you've ever had a non-cook help you in the kitchen, you know that they will burn themselves on hot pans, trays and casseroles that you can handle with ease, yet are curiously *insensitive* to heat in other ways (e.g. you can probably almost instantly tell "by feel" when a wrong burner is turned on, but a non-cook probably won't notice until there is smoke.)

I've also seen an apparent mind-body interaction prevent thermal burns in other settings: e.g. I once had to hike many miles, barefoot on hot asphalt, Those who were able to actively maintain a reasonable level of comfort [a definite conscious effort] had no lasting damage, but those who couldn't essentially lost the soles of their feet as a single giant blister [Of course there are other possible physiologic explanations for this anecdote].

On the flip side, when I moved to New England from Georgia, I learned that I could *greatly* extend my cold tolerance and comfort by relaxing my muscles and mind, rather than succumbing to the instinctive "pre-shiver" contraction. To this day, I often sit quite comfortably on my back porch in shorts and a T-shirt on sunny subfreezing midwinter days, by choosing to feel the warmth of the sun instead of the cold of the air, and if I find myself *feeling* cold in daily life, I usually find that a conscious effort to relax restores my comfort almost instantly (when I get into a cold car). Once I relax, I may not notice the cold until my fingers stiffen.

We see psychological control of pain quite often in the ER. Kids are said to be particularly susceptible to "hypnotic pain control" (often little more than a soothing, relaxed tone and manner) but I believe adults have a similar capacity and are better able to report the nature of their sensations. I've personally had stitches put in sensitive areas like my face with only a light state of autohypnosis as anaesthesia: it wasn't pleasant (indeed, I do it because proper local anaesthesia often involves as many needle pricks as the suturing does, making it a waste of time in my mind), but it was completely tolerable. In fact, as I sit here, I realize that I haven't done it in over a decade, and I'm actually a little curious to put in a few sutures right now (It's not as easy as it looks, being a mad scientist)

Indeed, autohypnosis is FAR less mysterious than the name makes it seem. Over the years, I've done many lumbar punctures (spinal taps) and administered epidural anaesthesia for many surgical procedures. The two are essentially the same procedure (insertion of a needle through the skin, muscles and connective tissue, into the spine), but while patients receiving spinal taps almost invariably report (and visibly experience) a great deal of discomfort, recipients of epidurals experience very little: even though we take more steps to try to assure patient comfort for the LP, patients see it as a scary mysterious medical procedure done "behind their back" where they cannot see it, while an epidural is "pain relief". Interestingly, though the epidural is arguably more invasive (injecting a foreign substance into the spine), uses a needle that is more likely to cause a CSF leak (at least that's local practice) and done with the patient sitting up and hunched over vs. lying down for the LP, recipients of epidurals rarely report the medium term side effects like "spinal headaches" (attributed to CSF leakage) that are commonly reported after a spinal tap.

Many young men (and some women) who grew up in the G. Gordon Liddy era learned the difference between "hard" and "soft" pain management. It's one thing to hold your hand over a candle *despite* feeling substantial pain, and another to simply feel the heat and not the pain for as long as possible. I won't say one is more effective than the other (there is a huge temptation to jerk your hand out of the flame when your control "breaks" and the pain comes flooding in), but they are different experiences.

If I can figure out how to turn soreness and joint aches into equivalent pleasure, I'll own the world.

#3 D.Rabbit

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Posted 12 November 2006 - 11:02 AM

Being the bumbling busy body that I am, I often cause myself undo pain, but I'm a dynamo and I don't have time for pain. As soon as I realize I have not broken anything substantial I put the pain aside and get back to work.

Endorphins (?) are reported to be able to change pain into euphoria, so one might say that it can be chemically controlled/changed by the bodies own chemistry.

If one looks at the immune network as a separate brain as I did in my soon to disappear thread in this venue, why can we not look at our pain response as having a mind of it's own?

I remember Christmas dinners at my brother's in-laws, they would heat the plates and his mother-in-law would have the food devoured before the first thermo plume escaped. I accused her of having he mouth lined with asbestos. That is how she was raised, and I suspect it killed off most of her pain sensors in her mouth. Why bother to eat then? You certainly can't taste it at that temperature.

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In fact, as I sit here, I realize that I haven't done it in over a decade, and I'm actually a little curious to put in a few sutures right now
I was screaming in my head looking for inspiration Orph, but this one....
too easy, maybe if I combine it with Vulcan ears? Nope, still too easy.
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#4 D.Rabbit

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Posted 12 November 2006 - 09:08 PM

There are challenges and there are challenges, and this one was fun.
Maybe we could blame it on the paint fumes this afternoon?

There are not many people who can inspire me to take the time to play with this type of nonsense, but you Sir, know just how to do it.
Thanks.

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#5 Jazzer

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Posted 12 November 2006 - 10:09 PM

^  That's great, D!  

:howling:


Edited to add:  I just realized, with that procedure done, now Orph can more properly sing his "Grok You Gently" filk.   ;)   :lol:  http://www.exisle.ne...showtopic=41878   :whistle:

Edited by Jazzergold, 12 November 2006 - 10:13 PM.

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#6 Orpheus

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Posted 12 November 2006 - 10:20 PM

D.Rabbit...
Don't make me demonstrate that classic neurophysiologic example of "sensory interpretation": tickling

There is no specific sensory input behind "tickling" (not to be confused with "itching", which is something else entirely) and the great majority of people cannot tickle themselves no matter what stimulus they apply to themselves. Applied by others, though...

-- Orpheus "Was that a threat? A promise? It's all in how you interpret it"

#7 Jazzer

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Posted 12 November 2006 - 10:31 PM

Ah, ticklishness....   :whistle:  


That reminds me of a while back my doctor ordered a test done on my legs to see if there were any clots or obstructions.  Weirdly, when the technician got the instrument up high on my right thigh it started tickling.  :blink:  I actually ended up laughing some.  :lol:  She said that a few people did react to the test by experiencing ticklishness, so my reaction wasn't new to her.  But I never expected that from the test.  But when she did the left leg, touching my upper left thigh didn't bother me at all - only my right.
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#8 Rhea

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Posted 12 November 2006 - 10:54 PM

Living with a high level of chronic pain the last few years (bony growth and other things pressing on spinal nerves), I can testify that  a certain amount can definitely be rechanneled. Some people learn to meditate. I have a mind like a grasshopper and I'm really bad at it, so instead I lay on the floor and count breaths at the end of my back exercises. Works really well.

I can also testify that there's certain level of pain you can't block out no matter what. When I get to that level, it pisses me off more than anything else, because it's just flat exhausting. Wish I could do that thing in BSG and cut it off - but no such luck.
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#9 Raina

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Posted 13 November 2006 - 04:29 AM

Thanks for all the insight into this phenomenon. I can't seem to tune pain out much (can't stand spicy foods, tattoos hurt like hell for the entire procedure), so I don't have much personal perspective on this.

Orpheus said:

Over the years, I've done many lumbar punctures (spinal taps) and administered epidural anaesthesia for many surgical procedures.
Are you a doctor?
*has been wondering how you know so much about sciency stuff*

I don't suppose you could shed some light on the neurological/physiological reasons for why this happens? I'm taking a course on neurobiology right now (we've just finished the unit on pain actually), so this is actually good study for me. :cool:

The more detailed, the better! Well keeping in mind that I'm a 4th/5th year undergraduate and not a doctor. ;)

thankies

Edited by Raina, 13 November 2006 - 04:31 AM.


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#10 ilexx

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Posted 13 November 2006 - 09:53 AM

I'm not quite sure though?! Building up a tolerance for spicy food or heat and cold and the like  - or even a certain level of physical pain inflicted by interior causes (diseases)  - is a bit different from the originally described issue: voluntary deviation of pain experience into something else while exposed to torture. Depending on the kind of torture one is subjected to there are physical traumata inflicted that - in addition to the pain - will cause the person all sort of problems up to going into shock etc. And other methods like the famous Chines wtare drop involve exactly the opposite reaction!

So: is there a way to getting used to torture? Can one, who until then experienced pain as pain, suddenly will oneself to perceive it as something different?

#11 D.Rabbit

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Posted 13 November 2006 - 10:06 AM

Thanks for posting the link to Orph's filk Jazzergold, it does make the comprehension of my animation complete.

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-- Orpheus "Was that a threat? A promise? It's all in how you interpret it"

It also depends on how one senses tickling. As a child I was fed up with the response that tickling created. I'm not the victim type as you might have assessed by now. I have two brothers 13 months older and younger, we where a healthy mob of scrappers. I found it necessary to make  an effort to shut off those receptor.  It worked just fine, I'm not ticklish in the least.
But your oh so welcome to try. ;)  :devil:  

For myself I use what I call the healing breath when it comes to some types of pain, mostly head aches or pain that persist while I'm stationary. I think of pain as a beacon so when you inhale the universal love energy you direct it to the beacon then exhale the pain. This exercise works just as fast as any over the counter pain relief, for me at least.

In a way it's a matter of how you perceive pain, it's a message to the brain, if you realize that you are in control of your body through your brain then with practice you can control the pain.

Often pain that medical professionals call psychosomatic is self inflicted. As long as one is in pain, they have an excuse not to be responsible for their lack of action, their fear of failure or their procrastinations. Perhaps they enjoy all the attention that one gets at the doctors' office? Many people show a decided improvement in their situation just by sitting in a doctors' office. It's all about getting attention in most cases.

Any pain that is unexplainable in the fact that I did not drop a rock on my foot etc. I have to think it over to find out why. Often enough I say to myself that it's my body telling me to slow down. So I will for a while, or at least use other parts of my body that don't require using the afflicted area.

If we can create pain, then I can't see any reason why we can not dismiss it.

BTW Orph, thanks for the insights on combating the cold, it's going to save me money on the heating bill.  :thumbs-up:

I've often taken the fact that if my face is not cold then why should the rest of my body be?

#12 Caithness

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Posted 13 November 2006 - 12:41 PM

You just tell your endorphins to start working and it dulls that pain.  Mind over matter.
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#13 Orpheus

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Posted 13 November 2006 - 01:29 PM

Excuse me as I free-associate a bit. in the hope of fleshing the topic out a bit more.

The pain of capsaicin isn't just something to tolerate: "the burn" is actively sought by afficianados, who add peppers as needed to achieve the burn despite any tolerance. It's not just peppers, various regional distilled beverages are expected to have an unpleasant burn (just watch the drinker's faces contort as they knock back a shot) while popular commercial variants are dismised as "too smooth". In the Southern moonshine community, for example, the "kick" was much prized and sometimes achieved by adding some pretty noxious substances.

Before I get started, though, let me put out a request for anyone with a working knowledge of torture resistance by POWs (through autobiographies, war accounts, etc. My own knowledge of that subject is vague, outdated and of questionable accuracy (e.g. government "resisting torture" manuals  from the 70s/80s  seem a bit fanciful from what we know now) I know that many POWs survived by playing mind games with their captors or distracting themselves by e.g. building imaginary houses or motorcycles in their minds [I used a similar technique to survive the torture of a "Magical Realism" literature course once. "[i]One Hundred Years of Solitude[/i]" indeed! Harrumph!)

Less familiar (but commonly reported in the news) are extreme masochists, who can interpret quite severe physical mutilation as pleasurable. Indeed, you may recall reading of cases of Armin Meiwes who advertised (successfully) on the Internet for "victims" to have body parts cut off and eaten (to the point of their eventual demise, or (less extreme) various pain and self-mutilation fetishists.

[I'd have assumed that alt.sex.snuff.cannibalism (or Meiwes' email address "antrophagus@hotmail.com") was a joke, but his success suggests that it isn't. There are many usenet groups with related names, and though I really don't feel up to researching them, perhaps some EtUer will take one for the team and report back]

The sexual angle often complicates things, but there are people who enjoy pain without overtly sexualizing it. Often a sexual angle is (mis)applied by reporters who can't see past (or who cater to) conventional wisdom and lump together all "perversions" as sexual. This theme seems completely pervasive in media accounts, even though we currently in the midst of a rising epidemic of "cutters" or nonsexualized self-mutilationists.

[Though we generally seek "psychoanalytic" (narrative) explanations for these paraphilias, It should be noted that the capsaicinoids in chile pepper are related to a host of common spice components, but appear to have mild euphoric effects (via induced endorphins) which have been hypothesized to be similar to the mechanisms in some mutillation or pain fetishists. Some scientists believe that it is possible to become addicted -- and to develop a olerance requiring a higher dose, just as with many exogenous drugs. They are also, paradoxically, one of the hot new tools in pain control (through other mechanisms, not fully characterized)]`

You may argue that mutiliation fetishists, whether "voluntary victims" or self-inflicted, whether sexualized or not, have other mental issues, but isn't that precisely the point: That it is possible, through an entirely mental process to percieve the most extreme kind of torture as something extremely desirable? To go temporarily insane? Isn't Cylon "projection" at least somewhat comparable to a human delusion or hallucinatory state?

A [temporary] voluntary mental dissociation can be adaptive in certain situations, and torture seems as good as any. "Dissociation" covers a broad range of well-documented, but poorly understood psychiatric responses, from "split Personalities" to "fugue states" to well, a lot of things. I'm not sure how much reliable information there is on its "inner workings". It seems too fascinating a topic, striking deep into the nature of our selfhood and "knowledge" of reality, for even the most reputable clinical workers to avoid speculating beyond the limits of the data.I won't pretend I can wrap my head around it in anything but the driest, most intellectual sense, but the literature sure is full of bizarre cases.

Interestingly, several "pain meds" used for childbirth (e.g. scopalomine when I was born - which may explain a thing or two) aren't analgesics or anaesthetics at all, but hypnotics. Scopalomine, for example, was also a primary ingredient in "truth serums" in the 1950s/60s (none of them were particularly reliable, though) and --perhaps not incidentally-- was a major ingredient in Contac™ Cold Capsules well into the 1970s. In its heyday as a childbirth med, the conventional wisdom was that its primary benefit was as an amnestic (childbirth remained painful, but the pain was ill-remembered) but I attribute that to a lack of empathy or proper induction by most physicians of that era. In my experience, a  can often guide a patient to a different interpretation of their raw sensation ("aesthesis" for you philosophy nuts). It's not completely reliable (you'll often be glad that they *don't8 remeber the experiene well) and I can't recall ever seeing a mother being convinced that childbrith was actually pleasurable (Nor am I sure I'd want to: "Oh! Oh! Oh! Keep coming, my son, Keep coming! You're so BIG!" -- that might just squick me out), but It definitely seems to me that the experience of pain can be quite malleable

Perhaps that partly explains the association of pain and sex: the strong sympathetic stimulation (e.g. high adrenalin and stress hormones) especially combined with the confusing counterbalance of parasympathetic system activation, might parallel sexual arousal and climax. But I've spoken enough on those mechanisms in the past.

Since you are studying neurophysiology, you are probably aware of the "split-brain" studies of the 70s/80s (in e.g. patients who underwent callosotomy, or severing of the bridge between brain hemispheres, for refractory seizures) and a host of more recent work that shows that we *don't* consciously experience our sensations, or even our own inner thoughts and motivations in realtime, but reconstruct them a split second later. It's really a rather disturbing notion, but Ithink there is ample evidence that our thoughts, reasons, and experience of ourselves is a story told by an "internal narrator" that pieces not only the raw sensory data, but observations of our actions (i.e. actions/decisions may come first, and be rationalized almost immediately) and combines them with our beliefs and self-image to create the pastiche that we only *believe* to be our actual mental processes. My point, if there is one, is that memory and conscious feedback may play a larger role in our direct everyday experience of reality than we realize.

Hey, this sentience business is new, evolutionarily speaking. We haven't worked all the kinks out of it yet. We've got big hopes for Homo sapiens sapiens v3, scheduled for release Real Soon Now.

-- Orpheus "when possible, avoids sapience -- or consciousness altogether"

Oh, and D.: I did exactly the same thing as a kid. My dad was a malicious tickler -- you know: "It's all in fun" but it really isn't? I was completely unticklish for years

Then a girlfriend convinced me (through logic I can't quite reconstruct) to attempt to become ticklish again -- at least for her. When that phase of my life ended, it didn't take long for me to regain almost all of my former immunity, but that last few percent... that tiny Achillean chink ... took over a decade. In fact, it occurs to me that I really should check to see if it is truly gone.

-- O. "Glad he isn't a *Canadian* mad scientist"

Edited by Orpheus, 13 November 2006 - 01:31 PM.


#14 WildChildCait

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Posted 13 November 2006 - 03:55 PM

its basically the same signal going to the brain..its how we interpret the sensation. I find tattooing, not really painful and even sometimes pleasant.
A piercing hurts, but not badly.

After the last lot of surgery I was asking for more morphine directly afterwards - the meds messed with my body's own endorphines. Once up in the ward though, I didn't take any meds until late at night, and they were werely a precaution so I'd sleep.


Dental problems? I'm a wimp. The first twinge sends me for the super duper painkillers. Wheras I give blood (when they let me) and that needle is a heck of a site bigger htan those the dentist uses, he even has to use numbing agent before that.  :blush:  :blush:
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#15 Kwillz

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Posted 13 November 2006 - 10:27 PM

I do that all the time. When I get one of my back pains or something (no, I'm not that old) I focus on the sensation and just the sensation. It's almost like meditation.
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#16 D.Rabbit

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Posted 14 November 2006 - 10:54 AM

I sent a link to this thread to my cousin who is interested in chronic pain because of a friend in Florida who has it. Her friend went to a Pain Clinic and they took her off her meds. I suspect that what Chaddee was saying is that the meds interfere with the bodies own response to pain is why, since my cousin, a retired health care professional,  did not elaborate.

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In fact, it occurs to me that I really should check to see if it is truly gone.

Is this an invitation? The line starts behind me. ;)


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-- O. "Glad he isn't a *Canadian* mad scientist"
I was wondering if you would catch my copy/paste/edit?
Your sharp for sure.

Canada already has one mad scientist, MSD one more might make it more fun.
Imagine what your knowledge and my imagination might come up with besides a tickle me Elmo that tickles back?
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#17 Rhea

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Posted 17 November 2006 - 11:00 PM

View PostOrpheus, on Nov 13 2006, 10:29 AM, said:

Oh, and D.: I did exactly the same thing as a kid. My dad was a malicious tickler -- you know: "It's all in fun" but it really isn't? I was completely unticklish for years

Then a girlfriend convinced me (through logic I can't quite reconstruct) to attempt to become ticklish again -- at least for her. When that phase of my life ended, it didn't take long for me to regain almost all of my former immunity, but that last few percent... that tiny Achillean chink ... took over a decade. In fact, it occurs to me that I really should check to see if it is truly gone.

-- O. "Glad he isn't a *Canadian* mad scientist"

LOL. My dad was the same, but I never got un-ticklish, unfortunately. Mom finally shamed him into stopping it.
The future is better than the past. Despite the crepehangers, romanticists, and anti-intellectuals, the world steadily grows better because the human mind, applying itself to environment, makes it better. With hands...with tools...with horse sense and science and engineering.
- Robert A. Heinlein

When I don’t understand, I have an unbearable itch to know why. - RAH


Everything is theoretically impossible, until it is done. One could write a history of science in reverse by assembling the solemn pronouncements of highest authority about what could not be done and could never happen.  - RAH


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