Suppose we have some form of malevolent superintelligent AI (or whole brain upload, or alien, etc.)

Assume that this entity intends to do everything in its power to optimise for the pain and/or suffering of one or more entities. What would the constraints be in doing this?

Presumably, a brain can only "perceive" so much information so quickly. So there may be a limit from an information processing standpoint. Presumably this could be overcome by expanding the brain's pain centre, etc. Or maybe gradually replacing the brain's neurons with more efficient equivalents that can more effectively process signals (which could lead to a "ship of theseus"-type scenario.) Making the brain/mind larger would be another option.

An obvious constraint is the amount of matter in the universe, but I anticipate that the AI (or whatever it is) would encounter some sort of roadblock before that becomes an issue. I'm simply unsure as to what that might be.

Assume also that the entity intends to maintain continuity of consciousness for its unlucky subject(s), so no rebuilding completely different minds. Further assume we're talking only about physical minds rather than simulations.

The only real mention of the type of thing I'm thinking about that I've found online was in an old LessWrong comment. I'm trying to determine how feasible this type of thing would be, how quickly it would reach diminishing returns, and what would constrain it.

  • $\begingroup$ One thing is for certain, there is no such thing as a "physical" mind, not anymore than a physical process running under a physical operating system. The computer itself may be physical or virtual, but the processes that run on it are always abstractions. As soon as you try to pin down a physical process or a mind you will find out that physically there is nothing corresponding to it. Back to the premise of the question: what you have physically is one or more nociceptive neurons firing with a certain frequency and fill factor; the interpretation of this signal is not physical. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Aug 13, 2020 at 16:35
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    $\begingroup$ you mean like pain threshold? or something like making the neuron send/feel more pain than it should be while still alive from the pain shock? $\endgroup$
    – Li Jun
    Aug 13, 2020 at 16:44
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP You have a point; perhaps I should've put "physical brains". The point was that simulated minds (in which the AI doesn't have to do anything in the physical world) shouldn't be considered. $\endgroup$ Aug 13, 2020 at 16:46
  • $\begingroup$ @LiJun Making the neuron feel more pain than it otherwise would. Whether this involves gradually replacing neurons with more efficient pain-sensing ones, or simply making the pain centre larger, etc. Presumably it'd be possible to prevent a mind from going into shock. $\endgroup$ Aug 13, 2020 at 16:48
  • $\begingroup$ For starters, you could make drugs similar to naloxone that block opioid receptors. The brain can't use it's own natural opiates to block pain, so there's no respite from torture. With enough nanotech, each neuron could be hooked to a stimulus what triggered a pain response to each neuron. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Aug 13, 2020 at 16:50

1 Answer 1


Pain is perceived, not explicitly felt, so you could conceivably experience an infinite amount of pain if it were not mitigated by your biology and psychology. The hurdles to experiencing pain lie between the nociceptors and the brain's final interpretation. Pain is a form of stress, which triggers the production and release of endorphins that saturate opioid receptors in the spinal column, mitigating and confusing the signals that reach the brain. The brain can also override pain processors by releasing adrenaline or dopamine that (basically) distract it from having to process the stress. If you were to inhibit the mitigators without restricting glutamate or SP (pain transmitters) the sensations would reach the brain unfiltered.

The next challenge would be to prevent the mind from shutting down and refusing to process intense stress, or for the target to enter a dissociative state where the pain data is collected but unfelt.

The most direct way of causing intense pain would be to skip the spinal column entirely and simulate specific sensations directly within the brain. Pain felt in the head is most difficult to ignore. Then amplify it with psychotropic drugs that induce a psychogenetic pain threshold, creating a mood and mindset that forces the target to experience the pain more acutely.

Imagine a headache so bad that it interferes with your vision, exacerbates with every photon of light or vibration of sound, your skin feels like it's burning every time you're touched... the simple act of existing is contributing to the agnoy, all from the throbbing intensity of your headache. Now imagine feeling that way while watching someone brutally murder everyone you love most, forcing you into a psychological spiral of impotent rage and guilt that make you want to punish someone even if it's yourself, until you begin to CRAVE the pain, allowing it access to every part of your mind. Now picture that scenario except it lasts for weeks without relief...

  • $\begingroup$ Interesting - thanks for the answer. It looks to me that the human brain is, to a degree, capped by the sheer volume of pain data that the brain can physically process, in a manner analogous to a computer running out of RAM/CPU cores. So the only real way to override those natural limitations would be to make a larger brain (or modify the existing one drastically, potentially to the point that it can't meaningfully be said to be the same brain.) Does that sound about right? $\endgroup$ Sep 1, 2020 at 21:36
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    $\begingroup$ @Anirandis sorry for the delayed response. I don't think the size of the brain matters, it's an issue of perception, and that depends on where you place the seat of perception in your worldvioew. Generally, what we experience is greater than the sum of the stimulus. If you're familiar with interferometrics it might help to look at it that way. Pain is almost entirely subjective, so pain induction without natural prohibitions would have to attack more than just neurons. $\endgroup$
    – CeliaFate
    Sep 8, 2020 at 0:01
  • $\begingroup$ I see. Wouldn't there have to be a subjective "maximum" that any specific brain can possibly perceive. Like, even if the mitigators were disabled and the brain were receiving all of the sensations as intense as possible, the brain can only perceive pain so intense. Assuming that the first barriers (preventing the brain from going into shock, etc.) have already been surpassed, do you think it'd be possible to make the subjective intensity of this maximum even more intense (by, e.g. "overclocking" some part of the brain) without bringing about drastic changes? $\endgroup$ Sep 9, 2020 at 3:29
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    $\begingroup$ @Anirandis There wouldn't have to be an explicit limit. Pain doesn't happen in the brain, all that gray matter is just processing power, but it's not linear where X neurons equal X sensory data. Think of it this way - when you are a toddler, you experience grief when you're told you can't have a cookie, but if your neighbor dies it's no big deal because you aren't capable of processing it. It's not because the brain is underdeveloped since the cookie can bring you to tears. It's because the capacity to feel, both in intensity and volume, grows as your conscious mind expands. $\endgroup$
    – CeliaFate
    Sep 9, 2020 at 4:41
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    $\begingroup$ Another way to think of it - your brain is just processing information. The length of the data chain is no longer for breaking your arm than it is for a gentle breeze blowing on your skin. It just ranks it and sends the signal. More sensations will send more signals, but it doesn't affect your mind's ability to process it other than as a distraction (rubbing a bruise, for example). Too many factors determine how a person feels pain for you to reliably quantify it, which is why I say a psychogenetic drug is your best bet. Create a phantom pain that they can't mitigate or ignore. $\endgroup$
    – CeliaFate
    Sep 9, 2020 at 4:57

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