Quantifying Human Suffering and "Everyday Suffering"

by willfranks2 min read3rd Feb 20193 comments

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Suffering
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In the case of humans, it seems self-evident that suffering is a consciously experienced, mental or psychological phenomenon. This makes it difficult to quantify, given our lack of access to other beings’ qualia. However, the science of neuropsychology seeks to correlate reports of subjective experience with quantitative measures of physiological (brain) activity. If the variable being reported by subjects is the (relative) degree of suffering experienced at any moment, this gives us a way to quantify suffering by correlating this variable with relevant brain-scan variables.

Once quantitative measures are in place, different methods for suffering alleviation (e.g. meditation, therapy, psychotherapeutic drugs) can be assessed for their relative efficacy. This already happens in clinical contexts, for example by measuring the effect of “Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction” (MBSR) on variables such as cortisol levels, which are related to consciously experienced stress.

I’m not aware of any research to extend suffering-quantification (and subsequent alleviation) beyond clinical settings and into “everyday life”. Most people will never have a clinical symptom that requires a psychotherapeutic treatment, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be subject to significant amounts of suffering throughout their lives. We might call that “everyday suffering”.

Measuring everyday suffering, e.g. measuring cortisol levels of healthy subjects in their day-to-day lives, might inform opportunities to alleviate it. This is probably already happening to some extent. An example intervention: given MBSR’s efficacy at alleviating stress-levels of those with psychiatric disorders, it stands to reason that it will alleviate the stress of healthy subjects. Thus, one might imagine a government funded program to provide all citizens access to MBSR as a means of reducing cortisol/stress levels and their associated suffering.

Alleviating everyday suffering is akin to the “betterment of well people” and I simply want to raise the point (for discussion) that this might be a neglected cause. It’s not as pressing a challenge as mitigating the intense suffering of certain beings (like factory-farm animals) but if large, healthy populations are subject to any baseline of mental suffering, I think it’s important that we try to measure, and then work to reduce, that baseline. Even a small reduction of that baseline in a large population would mean a significant decrease in total global suffering.

If anybody knows of research to assess the mental health of large populations I would love to hear about it. Thanks, Will.

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In the case of humans, it seems self-evident that suffering is a consciously experienced, mental or psychological phenomenon. This makes it difficult to quantify, given our lack of access to other beings’ qualia.

I think we can actually say something about minds in general here. Suffering is tied to how we relate to certain qualia, that is, suffering is qualia about qualia, and to put a fine point on it I'd say suffering is a kind of confusion (an incorrect prediction, in the predictive processing model) we experience as aversive (negative feedback). This suggests that any thing we think shows signs of capacity to perceive its own experience is likely to be capable of suffering, though whether or not it actually suffers is harder to suss out because humans can, though extensive training, learn to not suffer under conditions that would normally cause suffering by changing how they relate to pain.

I realize this doesn't really address the broader point of your post, but since you're thinking about these topics I thought you might find a more precise explanation of suffering of interest since it took me a while to pick t

There was a model of strongminds on the EA forum (https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/dkQemkyzQXSh3xvov/a-model-of-strongminds-oxford-prioritisation-project). Like you said though, it's nothing compared to the amount of suffering that could be reduced by focusing on factory-farmed animals, specifically advancing clean meat.

As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.