Pain: Is It a Perception or a Sensation?

There has been a periodic discussion on social media for a number of years on whether pain is a “sensation” or a “perception.” These are the many angles as I understand them:

  • Few people have made the case that pain is a sensation rather than a perception.
  • Many people have reacted by saying that this is essentially the opposite of how these terms are defined in the pertinent literature.
  • Even more people have observed the discussion from a distance and questioned if it has any real meaning or applications.

⇒Sensation and perception definitions

When sensory receptors pick up sensory stimuli, sensation happens. The organization, interpretation, and conscious awareness of those feelings are all parts of perception.

The process of identifying a stimulus and translating it into brain activity is known as sensation. The process of filtering, organizing, and interpreting sensory data to construct a conscious experience of a stimuli based on prior experiences is called perception.

The registration of a physical stimulus on our sensory receptors is referred to as a sensation. In other words, sensation is the first phase of a process that originates in the skin, ears, or eyes and concludes in the brain’s higher regions. In our neurological systems, sensation converts physical stimuli like light, sound waves, and mechanical vibrations into information. On the other hand, perception describes the subsequent stages of the perceptual process. Perception is the process of converting sensory information into a meaningful conscious experience.

The unpleasant sensation and perception of existing or impending tissue injury is known as pain. The stimulation of sensory receptors is known as nociception.

These citation unequivocally state that:

  • Pain can be appropriately described as a perception.
  • Nociception can properly be referred to as a sensation.
  • To say that pain is a sensation but not a perception is illogical.

This is the reason why nociception does not always translate into pain, as explained by pain experts including Tasha Stanton, Lorimer Moseley, and Mick Thacker. Nevertheless, for the reasons that follow, I believe that there are situations in which it is acceptable to refer to pain as a sensation, as in the expression “pain is an unpleasant sensation.” This is due to the fact that the terms perception and feeling are intrinsically ambiguous, have a lengthy history of changing in meaning, and are frequently used synonymously.

⇒The definitions are unclear and have no significance.

Pain is the term used to describe a wide range of physiological processes that occur at every level of the nervous system and control all of our conscious perceptions of the outside world, including tastes, odors, touches, sights, sounds, and pain. As a result, they are unable to precisely or specifically identify such incidents.

Rather, they serve to highlight a fundamental truth about the brain structures that control our conscious experiences: information processing is comparatively straightforward, reflexive, and unimodal at the “bottom” end, close to the sensory receptors. Information processing gets more multimodal, integrative, and complicated toward the “top” end of the brain. Although this distinction aids in our understanding of the nervous system, it does not support a particular interpretation of the terms sensation and perception.

Another textbook, Sensation and Perception by Goldstein and Block, explains this concept.3. The introduction highlights the distinction between perception and sensation, but it quickly clarifies that there is no clear cut boundary between the two, that their usage has evolved over time, and that the current trend is to use the word perception more often than sensation because mounting evidence indicates that sensory data organization and filtering start almost immediately after transduction:

In the early days of perceptual psychology, sensation was studied; but, over time, researchers stopped referring to sensation as such. Sensations are therefore significant historically. However, in our context, perception encompasses all that is related to comprehending how our senses perceive the outside world.

Additionally, Goldstein and Block recognize that there are several traditions about the use of sensation and perception and that, in many situations, there is no right or wrong way to use them.

This explains why, even when referring to conscious experience, scientific authorities frequently use the term “sensation” in a very broad sense. For instance, in certain research, pain is described as “an unpleasant sensation.” Of course, studies on “the perception of pain” are also available. Both uses are acceptable since readers will understand the meaning of the sentences in both situations.

⇒How do we communicate with our patients?

This, I believe, is the main objection raised by those who argue against referring to pain as a perception. Each has contended that informing a client that their suffering is merely a perspective could be stigmatizing. This could mean that the client is to blame for their discomfort, that psychological flaws are the cause of their pain, or that tissue damage or nociception has nothing to do with the pain.

It appears that learning that their pain is a perspective could be harmful to some people. Others may find this idea to be empowering. In any case, this is unrelated to the debate over the appropriate scientific terminology for pain. For the latter purposes.

I hope the above material is helpful


  • Sensation and Perception, 2nd Edition
  • Goldstein and Block 2010. Sensation and Perception, 10th edition