Emils Solmanis

pain. mostly voluntary.

I realised I wanted to write this post about seven and a half hours into a tattoo session. At that point, I was obviously somewhat delirious and in horrible pain. It gets really fun during that last hour of a full day session. Three things came to my mind then.

One: I'm probably way too obsessed with pain for a normal person, the science behind it, why we feel it, and how it works.

Two, why do I keep doing this?! The answer to that is obvious. To quote an ancient episode of Grey's Anatomy, "Why do I keep hitting myself with a hammer? Because if feels so damn good when I stop". It's not dissimilar to why people eat chillies or even just torture themselves at the gym, the endorphin rush at the end is quite something, and suffering through those last minutes is quite a mental exercise as well. That, and then the artwork being permanent, so 8 hours of suffering for a lifetime of demon pictures on my back is probably a fair trade.

Three, how do I stay still during all this, especially when I know I still have at least 45 minutes to go?!

humanimals and pain

Let's start with a brief detour through Scienceshire. What is pain? Is everybody equal before the Cenobites in terms of feeling it?

Turns out, it's not that easy to find out, because drilling holes in people's heads and sticking in electrodes is considered unethical, so we have to rely on just asking them non-invasively. When asked about how bad the pain is on a scale of 0 to 10, with 10 being the absolutely most excruciating pain you can imagine,

  • people will respond differently because they have different experiences. Someone who's had their leg ripped to shreds by a landmine, miraculously survived, applied a turniquet themselves, then had to crawl back to safety — they probably have a pretty different idea of "excruciating pain" to the average city dweller whose worst trauma in their life is a nasty carpet burn from that one time they wanted to experiment
  • people have a really hard time remembering pain, because you can't reexperience it. You can replay sounds in your head, you can relive visual images, but it's very, very hard for you to recall exactly what pain feels like. Coupled with a phenomenon called motivated forgetting this makes it difficult to actually remember your most painful experiences and leads to you significantly downplaying the suffering

What we do know is that women score about 1 point higher on average when asked the question. The simplistic explanation would be that women are less tolerant to pain. I don't like simple explanations to complex problems, so while I think this has a biological component, I think there is a massive social one at play as well. Men are taught from early on to "suck it up", so they are less likely to report pain associated symptoms and more likely to downplay their response even when asked directly. There is a fairly famous study showing that men report less pain in front of a female experimenter than they do in front of a male one.

So basically, no one really knows.

what if

All the gender biases aside, one might sometimes think that not feeling any pain would be the greatest thing ever. Well, you're in luck, people have (involuntarily) tried that. Turns out it doesn't work out that well, not feeling a bone fracture, for example, causes you to not seek treatment for it. I'll spare the gory details for some pub stories, but it makes for some fun research if you're bored.

deal with it

So we can't get rid of it forever, what can we do to deal with pain? "NSAIDs!!!" I hear someone shout from the back. Yeah, those have side effects. The over-the-counter ones are all blood thinners, which is really bad for tattooing. "Opiates!!". Despite my own rather libertarian views, they're not available for just asking nicely. As a rational man, I don't believe drugs will "dirty my aura" or "close my chakras" or whatever, so if pharmacological solutions were an option — yes, please, bring out the suitcase of pills! But it seems they're out of the picture in some cases.

The two techniques I've found to actually work for myself have been dissociation and altered focus. Both of these are exactly what it says on the tin.


With dissociation, you try to separate whatever part of your body is in pain from your brain. This worked beautifully when I had a picture of that Latin American guy tattooed on my upper arm. It takes some focus, but once you mentally detach your arm from your body, you just forget about it. Whenever possible, this would easily be my go to technique. It has one massive downside though, at least for me. It only works for things you can imagine separating from your body. Any extremities are trivial. Your chest isn't, unless you can imagine your head separating from your torso, which I'm sure some people can, but I'm not quite there yet.

altered focus

This involves just focusing on something else. It works off the principle that people are really. shit. at multitasking, despite what your manager wants to believe. This works great in the tattoo shop because they always have music on. I am quite likely the biggest music freak you've met. The music is heavy, the music is always something I know to the point of singing along. So I do, at least mentally. Or drum along, or play the bass along. It's ridiculously easy for me to distract myself doing that, so that's where I go, and my brain forgets to think about the pain because it's busy rocking out, it can't do both at the same time.


Both of these techniques also explain why I said earlier that suffering through the end of the session is a massive mental effort. You're getting your dermis plowed open with a load of automated needles, yet you need to keep focused on something completely different. It's not easy, but it beats the alternative of focusing on the pain, so you just do it.

What about you? Any suggestions on how you manage pain when pharma candy is not an option? Let us know in the comments!

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