The simplest form of learned behaviour is based on an instinct so distinct that it almost defies explanation: Pleasure good, pain bad. Pain tells us when the body is in distress and the anguish it causes is an important signal that assists survival. Its cousins in the mind — fear, anxiety, panic — too are essential to the fight-or-flight response hardwired into a lot of organic life. Traditionally, it is only through much spiritual labour and physical hardship that human beings have claimed to move beyond pain and fear, the circular chain of causality they engender, and on to enlightenment. Recently, though, the discovery of mutations of a previously unknown gene in Jo Cameron, a 71-year-old English woman, which make her almost impervious to pain as well as fear, anxiety or panic, make it seem that even the chances of attaining nirvana are a roll of the dice.
Cameron has had broken limbs, been in accidents, gone through childbirth — all without the excruciating pain that usually accompanies such incidents. It was only when orthopaedic conditions were discovered in an x-ray that doctors got a hint of her condition, and the subsequent investigations revealed that oddities in a gene called FAAH have lead to Anandamide, a chemical produced by the body, being improperly broken down and thus acting in a manner not dissimilar to cannabis. Anandamide affects the sensation of pain, mood and memory. Cameron’s mutation could hold the key to developing gene therapies to assist in the management of chronic pain, both mental and physical.
But apart from its scientific and social value, Cameron’s lack of suffering poses another question: Is she really better off than the rest of us? She may not have felt it, but her body has suffered. She may not have known it, but the world has a lot to be scared of. There is a reason transcendence takes effort. Without pain and fear, experience is just a little incomplete.
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