Monday, 14 March 2011

The Immeasurable Nature of Subjective Experience

Recently I came to ponder upon something, and not for the first time: How does one measure subjective experiences? Or perhaps even more appropriately: Can one?

True enough, we can compare one experience as relative to another. However, this is not perfect, since the temporal perspective affects us adversely. Memory may well be less than exact when it comes to subjective experiences. It may enhance or belittle that which we experienced, in essence causing our memories not necessarily to correspond with our own actual experience.

But even discounting that (after all, even objective measurements can be off, if the tools used to do the measuring are flawed or inexact), taking the comparative approach as a given; how can we possibly compare our relative results to that of other people's subjective experiences? While I am not discounting the importance of communication for our species (I am, after all, something of a fan of the concept), language is never exact enough to measure our experiences. We can use it to share our experiences with others, true; but any measurements given will always be relative and somewhat inexact.

And before you brush me off as a crazy nihilist here, consider our understanding of pain. If you go to the doctor or participate in certain tests, you may be asked to describe your type of pain (i.e. how we experience it). These descriptions are certainly often helpful for our understanding each other in regards to this, because they help us relate it to our own experiences. Yet, doctors also frequently want to measure the pain in some sense (as do maybe we ourselves too). On a comparative level we may make some advances. We may even find that the relative relation (as in something being more, or less, painful) between two things, say a slap and a punch, is equal in more cases than not. That is, the punch will be considered more painful than the slap, most likely. But by how much?

Doctors and tests sometimes asks us to rate pain (or other subjective experiences) on a graded scale. Putting a number to the experience would certainly seem a key component to measuring it, no doubt, but what exactly do the numbers mean? Even with a somewhat strict descriptive qualification for each number, how do we read those descriptions? How do we understand them? How do we compare them to our experiences? And is my 8 equal to yours?

Taking these question a step further, one might also add that the limits of our experiences affect our understanding of any grading system. Not that we lack imagination (well, some people certainly do) but it makes it more challenging. And surely there are times when human beings transcend their own individual understandings of any grade; when the dial suddenly, and in the immortal words of Nigel Tufnel, goes to eleven.


  1. "Du frågar mig vad kärlek är/men jag vet inget om det där/bara sånt som man kan mäta kan jag förstå" (Kent, "Våga vara rädd"). Jag var bara tvungen :).
    Skämt åsido har jag ofta funderat på just frågan "is my 8 equal to yours", och på utsagor som "jag har ju så hög/låg smärttröskel". Vad betyder det egentligen - att jag tror att jag uthärdar smärta bättre än de flesta - och hur kan jag egentligen veta det? Den där skalan som läkare använder måste ju vara meningsfull i medicinskt syfte, även om "din" 8:a kanske bara motsvarar en 3:a eller 4:a hos mig.
    Många frågor och funderingar, inga svar...som vanligt från mig. :)

  2. I'm sure there is some point to it, Ida, but the information received must forever remain inexact because of this difference. Because at the end of the day, while your 8 may not equate my 8, we must also ask ourselves how the people interpreting the test read our different 8s. And how they define that grade.