The Quiet Alarm
Twice a day, for a total of 19 months during the 1920s, the American vaudeville performer Edward H Gibson would get up on stage and perform a death-defying routine. The man billed as ‘The Human Pincushion’ would ask a member of the audience to pierce him with 50 or 60 pins that would be inserted up to their heads anywhere on his body, except his abdomen and groin.
Once, Gibson accidentally burned himself on a hot gas stove and felt nothing. It was only the malodorous scent of his burning skin that notified him of the situation. Besides headaches, he claimed never to have experienced pain. Not when he chopped his own knee with a hatchet, nor when he shot himself with a .22 hammerless pistol and the bullet passed through his left index finger, nor even when, during an episode of anger, he broke his own nose by banging it on a piano.
Gibson was no ordinary man, but he was no superman either. By most accounts, his insensitivity was congenital. Such disorders are rare but hardly unknown. Sufferers of congenital insensitivity live hard, hazardous, and often tragically short lives. The medical literature describes many individuals who have sustained serious injuries – lacerations, bruises, fractures, burns – without feeling anything. The absence of pain makes us careless. Few of us like it, but pain keeps us out of trouble.
Pain is not the only unpleasant experience that humans are subject to. What about boredom? Might it serve some useful purpose, too?