In the privacy of our own minds, we’re all hypochondriacs. Every unusual bump, bruise, ache or pain is a self-diagnosed alarm of our impending doom. “Death be not proud: I see you there!” This isn’t weird; it’s perfectly natural. We all do it because our bodies are such marvellously integrated organisms that when they’re not working perfectly, our brain goes on Red Alert and wants to know why. We unexpectedly become aware of all the rhythms of our heart, lungs, liver etc. that normally chug along unnoticed while we’re doing other things — like watching TV or reading incredibly interesting blogs. It’s much the same as being aware of your tongue. Suddenly, there’s this huge thing in your mouth and you don’t know what to do with it; where to put it, how to keep it from roaming around restlessly or licking your lips. (You just licked your lips, didn’t you?)
The reason we’re not normally aware of our tongue, or our fingertips or our clavicle (whatever that is) 24/7 is that it would drive us nuts. The brain knows this and shoves all our everyday bodily functions back into the subconscious until they’re needed. That’s why people don’t remember pain.
Pain is that incredible device that tells us something’s wrong. We feel it, but it’s primeval. When we accidentally discover the bread knife is sharp, our brain doesn’t analyze the situation the way it would a beautiful sunset. We just loudmouth an obscenity (or something less verbal) and drop the knife. Like breathing, it’s an automatic response. But, here’s the magic. After a band-aid and a couple of days, we forget what slicing a finger open feels like — the actual feel of it. The brain has pushed that nasty business back into our subconscious to protect us. Otherwise, we’d spend our entire lives howling in remembered pain.
But here’s the other cool bit — and the reason we’re all closet hypochondriacs. Even though the brain protects us from being consciously overwhelmed by pain, it also subconsciously remembers what pain can and will do to us. So, yeah, at 3 in the morning, chances are good that stomach ache is just the bean burrito we ate at midnight. However, our friend the brain has to make sure it’s not kidney stones, a ruptured spleen or a burst appendix. Therefore, it starts chirping away like a canary in a mineshaft. The trick is we need to remember, it’s 3 in the morning: Google and WebMD are just going to make it worse.