Q&A: Ignoring the Pain

hi, is it realistic for a secret agent to become ‘immune’ to pain if they’ve had to experience a lot? i was watching a tv show the other week and the main guy is an ex-cia agent and it says that he has become highly resistant to pain. if this is possible/realistic how long would they have to train for to become resistant to pain?

You don’t really develop an immunity to pain. There is a serious medical condition where the sufferer doesn’t have any pain response at all, and this can easily result in fairly serious injuries, because they have no warning when they’re being harmed.

You also don’t really become resistant to pain. You’ll still feel the pain. That’s not going anywhere. However, intense physical conditioning can teach you to distinguish between pain you need to worry about, and pain that you can file as a problem for tomorrow.

In case it’s unclear, I’m not talking about something specific hand-to-hand training here. Pretty much any strenuous athletic ability will teach you this, whether you like it or not.

Your body will gleefully lie to you and say that something hurts and you should stop when you’re fine, it’s just uncomfortable. At the same time, pain is something to be aware of, because it can indicate that something really is going wrong.

A character can learn to distinguish between different kinds of pain, but, it’s not really an immunity or resistance, even if those terms probably get the concept across.

A character can make a decision to ignore pain that indicates something’s wrong, and simply power through. This comes with all the problems associated with aggravating an existing wound. So, not behavior we’d normally encourage, but characters sometimes have more pressing considerations than their long term health. Hell, real people have problems with that, and can tend to ignore pain they really shouldn’t until its too late.

Conditioning teaches you to distinguish between kinds of pain, but it also teaches you how to push past it. Like I said, your body will complain about discomfort long before it transitions into actual harm.

Being able to power through pain isn’t really something to brag about. Ironically, it’s something that sounds less badass than the actual act is. Saying, “I’m immune to pain,” is kinda stupid; while a character who keeps pushing themselves and fighting, even as it’s killing them, can be make for a pretty effective sequence.

Ultimately, claiming resistance to pain is kinda pointless because you’re not immune to injury. Though it does remind me of the, “gain immunity to bullets by eating smaller bullets,” joke.

Is it realistic that an ex-CIA agent is unusually good at powering through pain? Yeah, sort of. Ignoring for a moment that spies are not superheroes, yeah, it’s reasonable that he’d be pretty good at ignoring pain. Not, “immune” or “resistant” to it, but I wouldn’t strongly fault someone for using those terms.

Is it realistic for a spy to gain immunity to pain from experiencing lots of it? No, not at all. This a very different question from the example. If someone’s suffered repeated trauma over their career, there’s a real risk they’ll suffer from chronic pain. So, they’ll be in a more impaired state. Chronic pain is no joke, it’s not something you can ignore, it doesn’t improve your relationship with pain. It sucks.

If you’ve got a spy who’s been beaten to hell and back many times over the course of their career, they’re going to be a mess. At that point, “immune to pain,” would be a sick joke. Now, I could see someone using that line in relation to emotional pain. It’d be a dark joke, but when has that ever stopped anyone?

-Starke

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