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Understanding PainUnderstanding Pain

Exploring the Perception of Pain

Fernando Cervero

Narrated by Randal Schaffer

Available from Audible

Book published by The MIT Press

If you touch something hot, it hurts. You snatch your hand away from the hot thing immediately. Obviously. But what is really happening, biologically—and emotionally? In Understanding Pain, Fernando Cervero explores the mechanisms and the meaning of pain. You touch something hot and your brain triggers a reflex action that causes you to withdraw your hand, protecting you from injury. That kind of pain, Cervero explains, is actually good for us; it acts as an alarm that warns us of danger and keeps us away from harm.

But, Cervero tells us, not all pain is good for you. There is another kind of pain that is more like a curse: chronic pain that is not related to injury. This is the kind of pain that fills pain clinics and makes life miserable. Cervero describes current research into the mysteries of chronic pain and efforts to develop more effective treatments.

Cervero reminds us that pain is the most common reason for people to seek medical attention, but that it remains a biological enigma. It is protective, but not always. Its effects are not only sensory but also emotional. There is no way to measure it objectively, no test that comes back positive for pain; the only way a medical professional can gauge pain is by listening to the patient’s description of it. The idea of pain as a test of character or a punishment to be borne is changing; prevention and treatment of pain are increasingly important to researchers, clinicians, and patients. Cervero's account brings us closer to understanding the meaning of pain.

Fernando Cervero is President of the International Association for the Study of Pain and Professor of Anesthesia at McGill University, where he is the Director of the Alan Edwards Centre for Research on Pain.


“In Understanding Pain, Fernando Cervero ... gives a remarkably lively tour of what we do know ... Cervero provides a rich and historical backdrop, and layers his explanations with colourful metaphors and relatable examples.”

New Scientist

“This is an enjoyable and thought-provoking work, written in an accessible style that will be welcomed by those who are interested in the discipline of pain and have some background knowledge in neuroscience.”

Times Higher Education

“All throughout Understanding Pain Fernando Cervero illustrates the biological enigma that is pain through the use of carefully chosen anecdotes, and patients' descriptions of their symptoms. The book provides a comprehensive and accessible review of the neurobiological basis of pain perception, and will be of interest to both pain researchers and the reader with a general interest in pain.”


“Fernando Cervero's unique ability to provide an understanding of the complex experience of pain will be appreciated by everyone. He integrates historical perspectives with useful anecdotes that contribute to understanding pain relative to personal experience. Noteworthy is his immensely readable chapter on pain hypersensitivity, which explains complex molecular and cellular changes leading to abnormal painful experiences that result in maladaptable behavior. Cervero correctly emphasizes that pain after injury is 'unnecessary and avoidable' and not merely a symptom, but a disease in itself, and must be treated.”

—Ronald Dubner, Department of Neural and Pain Sciences, University of Maryland School of Dentistry

“Fernando Cervero has written an up-to-date introduction to the science of pain. His language is concise and his coverage of topics is broad and placed in historical perspective. Non-specialists will find in this book a readable, accessible and informative entry to the major questions and key discoveries that have broadened our understanding of pain.”

—Howard Fields, Professor of Neurology; Director, Wheeler Center for the Neurobiology of Addiction, University of California, San Francisco

“In a straightforward but nevertheless fascinating way, Fernando Cervero, an excellent pain researcher and a superb writer, unravels the many well known facts as well as the just as numerous mysteries of pain. In comparison to our classical five senses, pain is a very different one indeed. Although it shares quite a number of features with those of the other sensory modalities, it has even more features which have no counterpart.”

—Robert F. Schmidt, University of Würzburg

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University Press Audiobooks