I'm imagining some form of torturer trying to maximise the pain of its subject, and what limitations (if any) would bound the amount of pain that could be caused.

The brain can only process a certain amount of sensory information (obviously), but I'm not sure if this is a limitation on the intensity that can be perceived.

Other than things like natural endorphins (that could theoretically be blocked by drugs by the torturer), is there anything that would limit the intensity of pain that a brain could experience?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Essence of question: is there always a higher level of agony that you could make someone experience even when they’ve experienced what they think is the worst? $\endgroup$
    – SRM
    Dec 19, 2020 at 16:42
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    $\begingroup$ I’m voting to close this question because Torture Questions are Gruesome content and thus Not-Allowable $\endgroup$
    – Trish
    Dec 19, 2020 at 17:24
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    $\begingroup$ @Trish: Was I asleep? When did the powers that be post a list of allowable and not allowable subjects? AFAIK, all we have a strong suggestion to avoid "gruesome" content. A discussion of pain theories and pain scales is most definitely not gruesome; if anything, it's rather dry and somewhat tedious. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Dec 19, 2020 at 17:35
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    $\begingroup$ 1. This is not, at least as currently written, a "gruesome" depiction of anything. 2. Torture is a reality in many cultures and is thus a viable line of inquiry for writers, game designers, and anyone else engaged in worldbuilding. This IS NOT A DISALLOWED TOPIC in this forum. Voting to Leave Open. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Dec 19, 2020 at 20:15
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @elemtilas CesarM is community Manager. Not a "random person from SE" $\endgroup$
    – Trish
    Dec 19, 2020 at 21:26

2 Answers 2


You might use an analogue to Capsaicin, one which stimulates all pain receptors, not just heat receptors.

Capsaicin chemically stimulates the heat sensing nerves so that they uncurl just as they do in response to high temperature. The brain interprets the result as a burning sensation, just as if they were actually at a high temperature. Capsaicin is the active component in chili peppers.

Pain receptors certainly include heat sensors burning hurts, but there are several types. You would need a chemical cocktail to activate all of the pain receptors. For example, many of the bodies pain receptors respond to inflammation in nearby tissue.

Ultimately you could develop technology that simply stimulates the appropriate sensations directly in the brain via electrical signals. This would be the most effective because you could quickly turn the pain on/off as needed. This ability would be more effective in torturing than simply constant high levels of pain, because of the additional control over the psychology of pain. Also, you would have more control over pain levels allowing you to maximize all forms of pain over the entire body.

However, you cannot assume that just because the pain is not due to the body being damaged, that you can do this to a person without physical consequence. The body will response to artificial pain just as it does to real pain (which is only logical if the net result is the same according to the brain).

A second limitation is that people pass out in response to pain. This is the basis for some forms of fainting. The level of pain needed to do this varies widely. Perhaps you need to study this response to determine the threshold of pain to induce this response in any given person

Like many medical conditions, you could also treat the underlying symptoms associated with fainting. In particular, giving the patient oxygen can reduce the likelihood of fainting, as could treatment altering blood pressure and blood sugar. Reduce fainting, increase overall pain.


Every square inch of your has, on average, 200 pain-receptor nerves. You also have a variable amount of pain receptors inside your body (ex. high amounts in the GI tract and chest, much lower in the interior of the legs). The theoretical greatest single physical pain one could ever experience would be to have a torturer stimulate every single pain receptor at the same time. Doing so through normal means would cause the prisoner to die, however. But, if you were writing Sci-Fi, there could be some machine that would cause the pain receptors to fire despite no immediate problem that would normally cause them (think of it like your nerves are firing, telling you something is hurting your body, but there is no actual physical damage to your body). That would leave the prisoner in the greatest possible physical pain a human could ever experience with no physical damage beyond probably shock, PTSD, extreme stress, etc.

That said, I'd argue from a story-perspective emotional or psychological pain, if done well, is much more effective and horrifying than any physical torture.


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