The Anthill

Anthill 19: Pain

Pain is something that everyone is familiar with. If you touch a burning stove, a signal travels up your nervous system to your brain which tells you to snatch your hand away.

But understanding pain isn’t so simple. We all experience pain in different ways and the manner in which our brain processes these signals can vary significantly.

This episode of The Anthill is dedicated to exploring this world of pain. We look into how and why humans experience pain and the efforts underway to better minimise it. Katerina Fotopoulou from UCL’s psychology unit explains how the brain processes pain and why it’s so subjective. Emotions, social relations and context all have a role to play.

In a world of increasingly sophisticated machines, we also explore the question of whether or not robots should feel pain. Conor McGinn, who designs robots involved in the care industry, tells us how far away the technology is from this. And we also address the moral question of whether or not it’s right to inflict feelings of pain onto something you create with Beth Singler, a researcher from the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at the University of Cambridge, who made a film on this topic called Pain in the Machine. It’s the first in a series of four short documentaries considering the implication of AI and robots in relation to human identity.

From whether or not we should create things that can feel – and even benefit from – pain, we switch to human efforts to remove it entirely.

In fact, the ability to banish pain has been one of the great boons of modern medicine. Unfortunately, the most effective painkillers are based on opium. And like opium, they are addictive and sometimes lethal. Pain experts Marcus Rattray from the University of Bradford and Andrew Moore from the University of Oxford tell us what alternatives are being developed. They also discuss the difficulty of bringing these to market.


Music in the opioid segment is Attend by Art Of Escapism and The Anthill theme music is by Alex Grey for Melody Loops.

Listen to more episodes of The Anthill, on themes including Humour, The Future and Memory.

A big thanks to City University London’s Department of Journalism for letting us use their studios to record The Anthill.

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