In a hypothetical advanced society with neurotechnology capable of directly modifying pain and pleasure pathways, one can imagine the specific pathways giving rise to sensations of pain or pleasure being manipulatable such that features like neurotransmitter sensitivity can be adjusted to arbitrary degrees. So signals of arbitrary intensity can be transmitted from these pathways and integrated into the brain's neural networks to create an extremely intense conscious experience.

If the reason why the worst possible pain seems much worse than the best possible pleasure is good is because of these pathways' modulating effects on signal strength before the signals are integrated into the brain to create a conscious experience, then it seems plausible that this asymmetry could be eliminated by modification of the neural pathways.

My question is: with these capabilities, what would be the new upper bound on intensity of a conscious experience? Does this upper bound impose a restriction on the intensity of signal that can be effectively integrated into a conscious experience (such that making a pathway amplify the signal any further wouldn't have any effect)? And is this upper bound agnostic to the kind (pleasure/pain) of signal, such that it would lead to a 1:1 ratio in the absolute limits of intensity for both pain and pleasure?

This is Worldbuilding, so speculative guesses are welcome. I'm not entirely sure whether (if at all) neuroscience can answer these questions at this stage.

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    $\begingroup$ Your second paragraph is making an unproven assertion (max pain > max pleasure), then creating a hypothesis for the reason behind the unproven assertion, then taking the hypothesis as fact and suggesting a therapy. Logically, that's a house of cards. With that out of the way, what are you looking for in an answer? You can specify that with the proposed tech that things work however you want in your story. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 16 at 22:22
  • $\begingroup$ I think max pain > max pleasure is a fairly intuitively appealing assumption that can be assumed. The hypothesis about it being due to modulation of signals in pathways and neurotransmitter sensitivity etc is at least a partial explanation of this - we know that pain pathways tend to amplify signals, but I don't know if this is a full explanation. My question is, broadly whether max pain = max pleasure if you were to account for control over these pathways; would you run into some limitation on the intensity of an experience that imposes the same upper bound on intensity for pain & pleasure? $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 16 at 22:37
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    $\begingroup$ Speculative guesses are specifically prohibited by Stack Exchange (question would be closed as opinion-based). Please carefully read the tour and the following two hep center pages to understand Stack Exchange's limits: help center and help center. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Jun 16 at 23:25
  • $\begingroup$ This is a good question for the philosophy stack exchange. $\endgroup$
    – causative
    Commented Jun 17 at 2:26
  • $\begingroup$ The maximum perceptible pain and pleasure are being tuned by Evolution. One factor is, our gene pool loses more representatives by tigers chomping off limbs than by our chomping on mushrooms (or kissing poisonous frogs) for funny dreams. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 18 at 10:29

5 Answers 5


We don't know

Neuroscience most definitely cannot answer this question, which is why when you visit a doctor's office or hospital you'll find a sign like this on the wall:

enter image description here

The reason pain is self-reported begins with no existing method of measuring the extent of pain or pleasure. Then there are the many problems with determining pain levels, such as:

  • Some people are more tolerant to pain/pleasure than others.
  • What causes pain/pleasure for one person may not cause it for another.
  • The interpretation of what is painful/pleasurable is at this time entirely subjective.
  • Experienced pain/pleasure can be modified (pro or con) by intelligent thought — to a degree, which is why torture isn't just applying the proverbial thumb-screws, but the creation of an entire environment around the experience.
  • "Pain" (and there's a similar definition for pleasure, they're highly related) relates to everything that causes an itch or a tickle to mind-bending screaming pain to something that causes the body to shut down (catatonia or unconsciousness) to hide itself from the pain. We kinda know how to block it (talk to migraine suffers for proof of our lack of a perfected science), but we really don't understand it at the neurological level such that we can measure it. It's an incredibly complex reaction.

In short — humanity doesn't have a way to measure what you consider to be the baseline condition, so it certainly doesn't have a way to answer your question. There is no objective measurement of pain.

Consider this question on this site, which was closed as opinion-based and it might have been more objective than this question due to the goal of finding a method of measurement.


There is no way to objectively measure pain or pleasure, so there is no objective way to determine a new maximum threshold. Your guess is as good as ours.

And I ask, why does it matter? From a worldbuilding perspective, do what Joseph Henry did when he worked out the mathematical relationships for electromagnetism: he named the unit for self-induction (inductance) after himself... the "Henry." Sometimes (OK, ofttimes) authors today take the quest for realism way too far. Here you have an opportunity to be imaginative while reflecting a plausible science.

"In 2047 Desk Beaver discovered the neural connections that represent the interpretation of pain/pleasure by the brain including the ability of the conscious mind to modify the interpretation based on the observed or experienced causation of pain/pleasure, leading to either enhancement or diminution. The result is the unit of measurement, the 'Beaver,' with a defined maximum of ten beavers being the most pain or pleasure (identified by the sign of the unit) a person can experience without falling into a self-preserving catatonic state." (No actual description of the neuroscience is given, it being a distraction from the story. You're not writing a textbook, after all.)

Once you do that, your worldbuilding quest is resolved by declaring that someone discovered how to bring a person to 11 Beavers without passing out.


Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet

(Frame challenge)

As is widely known, so-called "lipsum text" traces its origin to Cicero's famous work, De finibus bonorum et malorum ("On the extremes of good and evil").

The first and second books of that work, written in 45 BCE, discuss the true nature of pain and pleasure; the first argues that pleasure is the absence of pain; the second rejects that claim to argue that pain and pleasure are different things entirely. (The later books focus on other topics not related to your question.)

Modern science tells us that many whole regions of the brain are involved in processing pain signals received from the body, including but not limited to (per Wiki):

the thalamus, hypothalamus, midbrain, lentiform nucleus, somatosensory cortices, insular, prefrontal, anterior and parietal cingulum

These are not just the "wires" that run from the body to the brain, they are the brain. So, it seems to me that modifying the perception of pain and pleasure would constitute a far greater reworking of the brain than it seems you contemplate:

the reason why the worst possible pain seems much worse than the best possible pleasure is good is because of these pathways' modulating effects on signal strength

In sum, I don't think pain and pleasure work the way you think they do.

It's also worth noting that having a stronger reaction to pain than to pleasure is an extremely beneficial evolutionary adaptation, because, in a state of nature, pain is very often a sign of deadly harm, while pleasure is, essentially, a luxury. It would be a very big problem if even minor pain were incapable of piercing moderate pleasure. A pain sensation needs to be top priority, no matter what else is going on.

This makes me think that any attempt to "re-prioritize" pain & pleasure in the human sensory regime would be cutting against the grain. I don't mean simply that it would require more scalpels than we can bring to bear, because I grant that sci-fi nanotechnology can go anywhere and do any task we can direct it to. The problem is that very many sub-systems of the brain and nervous system play a part in making pain top priority, and changing all of them is just as likely to "brick" the mind as it is to accomplish your goal. It's too foundational, and ripping it up will play havoc on countless other parts of the human body and mind, including parts we don't understand, or only think we understand.

Finally, I don't see how anybody could answer your final question:

what would be the new upper bound on intensity of a conscious experience?

I don't have words or even concepts to say what is the current "upper bound on intensity."

Medical personnel use a scale of 1 through 10, but that's not because the body quantizes pain according to a decimal scale, but because we humans find decimal systems easier to work with generally.

But even that use is utterly frustrated, because a person can only give a pain rating based on what they have experienced thus far in life, and what they think they can imagine beyond that experience. For example, I've been in some bike accidents, and had some unpleasant experiences in hospital. But I'm male, so I will never know the pain of childbirth, and I have no way to know whether the worst pain I've ever felt is equivalent to or greater than that experienced during labor. And I never will know, because my mind is trapped in this body. Every human has the same limitation, to never have direct access to the sensations of others, and thus no way to directly compare.

So, I really cannot imagine what an answer to your question would look like, but I will certainly keep an eye out.


Drugs already do this.

Many of our most addictive drugs are also painkillers. When someone who is suffering intense pain takes them, they relieve the pain. When someone who is not suffering intense pain takes them, the experience extreme pleasure.

Then, when they continue taking them for a long period of time, the brain adapts to try to normalise the experience, resulting in reduced effects from a given dose and therefore ever-increasing doses of more powerful drugs to produce the same effect.

If you want to know what the maximum possible level of pleasure achievable by a human brain, look at a drug addict.


It would be extremely hard to change all pleasure and pain neural ways because the neural ways are in every single part of the body, and multiple of them coming from every part of the body in the brain. so I guess perform a surgery on a monkey, steal its brain, and put it in a human. thats the end of my useless post.


From purely speculative point, the maxima of pain and pleasure a human being can experience, cannot be too far from what humans evolved to normally experience, because there is no right hardware of software inside a human to feel them. At the absolute peaks of torture or orgasm, we either faint, the brain shutting itself down, or we no longer experience an increase.

Therefore, it is quite unlikely we can push them much further, without redesigning the brain first, and doing that you would end up with a transhuman creature vastly different from the baseline.


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