I'm 71. I've experienced a lot of pain and anxiety in my life, as has everyone. Well, almost everyone. Because a 72 year old woman who lives in the Scottish Highlands says she has never felt pain or anxiety, and scientists are making progress at learning why.
I learned about Joanne Cameron via a fascinating article in a recent issue of The New Yorker, "A World Without Pain." Here's how it starts out.
We like to think that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, or more resilient, or . . . something. Deeper. Wiser. Enlarged. There is “glory in our sufferings,” the Bible promises. “Suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” In this equation, no pain is too great to be good. “The darker the night, the brighter the stars,” Dostoyevsky wrote. “The deeper the grief, the closer is God!”
We atheists get in on the action by insisting that the agony of loss elucidates the worth of love. The hours spent staring into the dark, looping around our own personal grand prix of anxieties, are not a waste of time but a fundamental expression of our humanity. And so on. To be a person is to suffer.
But what if our worst feelings are just vestigial garbage? Hypervigilance and pricking fear were useful when survival depended on evading lions; they are not particularly productive when the predators are Alzheimer’s and cancer. Other excruciating feelings, like consuming sadness and aching regret, may never have had a function in the evolutionary sense.
But religion, art, literature, and Oprah have convinced us that they are valuable—the bitter kick that enhances life’s intermittent sweetness. Pain is what makes joy, gratitude, mercy, hilarity, and empathy so precious. Unless it isn’t.
“I know the word ‘pain,’ and I know people are in pain, because you can see it,” Joanne Cameron, a seventy-two-year-old retired teacher, told me, in the cluttered kitchen of her century-old stone cottage in the Scottish Highlands. Cameron has never experienced the extremes of rage, dread, grief, anxiety, or fear. She handed a cup of tea to Jim, her husband of twenty-five years, with whom she’s never had a fight. “I see stress,” she continued, “and I’ve seen pain, what it does, but I’m talking about an abstract thing.”
Because of a combination of genetic quirks, Cameron’s negative emotional range is limited to the kinds of bearable suffering one sees in a Nora Ephron movie. If someone tells Cameron a sad story, she cries—“easily! Oh, I’m such a softie.” When she reads about the latest transgression by Boris Johnson or Donald Trump, she feels righteous indignation.
“But then you just go to a protest march, don’t you? And that’s all you can do.” When something bad happens, Cameron’s brain immediately searches for a way to ameliorate the situation, but it does not dwell on unhappiness. She inadvertently follows the creed of the Stoics (and of every twelve-step recovery program): Accept the things you cannot change.
It's endlessly fascinating to me how the mind and body are so intimately connected.
Of course, the mind is the brain in action, and the brain obviously is part of the human body, so in that sense it isn't surprising at all that the "genetic quirks" mentioned above allow Cameron to go through life in such a blissful fashion.
Some people spend years, decades, or an entire lifetime trying to achieve through meditation and other practices what Cameron has been able to achieve simply by virtue of her genetic inheritance.
This shows that notwithstanding unsubstantiated claims about human consciousness being something immaterial and separable from the body, there's plenty of solid evidence that we are physical beings living in a physical world.
I was tempted to also say, end of story, but that wouldn't have been true. There's so much complexity in the brain, including how the brain interacts and communicates with other parts of the body, that it will be a very long time, if ever, before we understand all of the mysteries of human experience.
Being a fan of marijuana, which is legal here in Oregon, I found this part of The New Yorker article interesting.
Cameron does not have neuropathy: she can feel all the sensations the rest of us do, except pain. The most striking difference between her and everyone else is the way she processes endocannabinoids—chemicals that exist naturally in every human brain. Endocannabinoids mitigate our stress response, and they bind to the same receptors as the THC in the kind of cannabis you smoke.
Normally, they are broken down by an enzyme called fatty acid amide hydrolase, or faah. But Cameron has a mutation on her faah gene that makes the enzyme less effective—so her endocannabinoids build up. She has extraordinarily high levels of one in particular: anandamide, whose name is derived from the Sanskrit word for “bliss.”
About a third of the population has a mutation in the faah gene, which provides increased levels of anandamide. “That phenotype—low levels of anxiety, forgetfulness, a happy-go-lucky demeanor—isn’t representative of how everyone responds to cannabis, but you see a lot of the prototypical changes in them that occur when people consume cannabis,” said Matthew Hill, a biologist at the University of Calgary’s Hotchkiss Brain Institute, who was a co-author of the Cameron paper.
The faah gene, like every gene, comes in a pair. People who have the mutation in one allele of the gene seem a little high; people who have it in both even more so. Jo Cameron is fully baked.
It could be that one day, after much more research, scientists will be able to concoct a drug that mimics what comes naturally to Cameron: a pain and anxiety free life.
However, there's a valid argument that this wouldn't be desirable, since pain and anxiety have some useful functions.
I asked Matthew Hill—a renowned expert on cannabinoids and stress—if there was any downside to Cameron’s biology, and he laughed out loud. “Yes! From an evolutionary perspective, it would be tremendously destructive for a species to have that,” he said. Without fear, you drown in waves that you shouldn’t be swimming in; you take late-night strolls in cities that you don’t know; you go to work at a construction site and neglect to put on a hard hat.
“Her phenotype is only beneficial in an environment where there is no danger,” Hill asserted. “If you can’t be concerned about a situation where you’d be at risk of something adverse happening to you, you are more likely to put yourself in one. Anxiety is a highly adaptive process: that’s why every mammalian species exhibits some form of it.”
The New York Times had a story about Cameron in March 2019, "At 71, She's Never Felt Pain or Anxiety. Now Scientists Know Why." It's shorter than The New Yorker piece and also is well worth a read. Here's an excerpt.
In retrospect, she sees how her genetic disposition may have aided her at work. After years as a primary-school teacher, she retrained to work with people with severe mental disabilities. Erratic, aggressive behavior never riled her, she said.
But though having this mutation may sound like a dream, there are downsides. One is that she is quite forgetful; prone to losing her keys and her train of thought midsentence. The other is that she’s never felt the “adrenaline rush” that other people talk about, she said.