Pain Experience and Structures of Attention: A Phenomenological Approach

  • Agustín Serrano de HaroEmail author


A general principle of the phenomenology of pain states, in agreement with everyday knowledge, that normal human experience oriented towards one’s environment is distorted and its direction reversed whenever an unexpected pain arises. In my paper, I intend to shed some light on this descriptive principle by considering it in terms of Edmund Husserl’s account of attention as a universal factor in conscious life, articulated in three main levels: attentional focus; co-attention, which necessarily accompanies the salient focal appearance; and finally, inattention, which is to be identified not with unconsciousness, but with the conscious horizon and background of whatever appears to experience. My essay accordingly draws a distinction between those physical pains that occupy the foreground of consciousness and violently monopolize the focus of interest, on the one hand, and on the other hand, other physical pains that allow some co-attention and therefore do not subjugate the attentional focus. There are even pains that due to their weakness or insignificance do not attract co-interest and do not interfere with the articulation of present experience. Concerning the first type, it nevertheless seems true that not even this “invasive pain” is capable of annihilating every other present experience, so that consciousness would be entirely reduced to “being in pain” and pain would be the sole content in these temporal phases. With regard to the quest for a general model of why pain captures attention, I finally propose that the lived body does not operate in conscious experience as a foreground, middle ground or background. Instead, one’s own body is not only the “absolute here” for any spatial direction and the “zero point” of orientation, but is at the same time the “zero level” for exerting attention, the level from which one acts and upon which bodily pain impacts.


Conscious Experience Physical Pain Tennis Player Tactile Sensitivity Extreme Pain 
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This paper has been prepared in the Research Project “Fenomenología del dolor y análisis del cuerpo,” FFI 2013-43240P (Ministry of Economy and Innovation, Government of Spain). I am highly indebted to Elizabeth Behnke for her constant help with the English version of my paper. I thank Simon van Rysewyk for his comments on the earlier version of this article.


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© Springer International Publishing AG 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of PhilosophyConsejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC)MadridSpain

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