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Prog Brain Res. 2018;243:205-229. doi: 10.1016/bs.pbr.2018.10.013. Epub 2018 Nov 28.

Pinpricks: Needling, numbness, and temporalities of pain.

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Presidential Scholars in Society and Neuroscience, Center for Science and Society, Columbia University, New York, NY, United States. Electronic address:


Acupuncture analgesia appeared relatively straightforward. A patient laid awake as the practitioner needled selected sites on the body to induce numbness for surgery. Numerous reports emerging from China in the 1970s featured men and women resting on operating tables, smiling into the camera, surrounded by doctors who attended to the excised region-the esophagus, brain, gut, heart, or lungs. In the course of a decade, hundreds of news articles proclaimed acupuncture analgesia as embodying the spirit of Communist politics. While "acupuncture analgesia" was a heterogeneous practice that addressed a variety of disorders, it cohered visually in photographs of patients indifferent to their vivisected bodies, and it cohered discursively as a means for eliminating sensitivity to pain. Across these domains of representation, I argue that reports of obliterating pain with a single needle across clinical encounters collapsed the multiple temporalities of pain. Drawing on sources from an imagined community of researchers and physicians in parts of China, Singapore, Macau, Hong Kong, Britain, and the United States, this chapter explores the epistemic and ontological implications of numbness-a distinct sensation defined by the lack of sensation-in the absence of the brain.


Acupuncture analgesia; Numbness; Pain; Surgery


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