Research in the neuroscience of pain perception and visual perception has taken contrasting paths. The contextual and the social aspects of pain judgements predisposed pain researchers to develop computational and functional accounts early, while vision researchers tended to simple localizationist or descriptive approaches first. Evolutionary thought was applied to distinct domains, such as game-theoretic approaches to cheater detection in pain research, versus vision scientists' studies of comparative visual ecologies. Both fields now contemplate current motor or decision-based accounts of perception, particularly predictive coding. Vision researchers do so without the benefit of earlier attention to social and motivational aspects of vision, while pain researchers lack a comparative behavioural ecology of pain, the normal incidence and utility of responses to tissue damage. Hybrid hypotheses arising from predictive coding as used in both domains are applied to some perplexing phenomena in pain perception to suggest future directions. The contingent and predictive interpretation of complex sensations, in such domains as 'runner's high', multiple cosmetic procedures, self-harm and circadian rhythms in pain sensitivity is one example. The second, in an evolutionary time frame, considers enhancement of primary perception and expression of pain in social species, when expressions of pain might reliably elicit useful help. This article is part of the Theo Murphy meeting issue 'Evolution of mechanisms and behaviour important for pain'.