Similar areas of the brain are activated when you burn your hand on the stove and when you bite into a cookie. Here’s why. Following is a transcript of the video.
Caroline Aghajanian: “Oh my god… I think I’m going to die.”
Why do we do this?
Joe Avella: “It burns, but it’s so good.”
Chef Johnny Zone: “As a human being, pain is pleasure..”
Chef Johnny is right. Pain and pleasure are intricately connected. Similar areas of the brain are activated when you burn your hand on the stove and when you bite into a cookie. To be clear, eating a cookie and burning your hand won’t make you react the same way… unless the cookie is on fire. But, while it may seem like a cookie would bring us infinitely more joy than a burn, sometimes… it doesn’t.
Capsaicin is the chemical that makes chili peppers spicy. It was developed specifically to keep mammals from eating them. But humans went ahead and started eating – and enjoying – spicy peppers anyway.
So what gives?
When we feel pain, all sorts of feel-good chemicals get pumped into our system as a way to cope. Endorphins, anandamide, and adrenaline are all responsible for that “heat buzz” after a hot wings challenge. The hippocampus orders endorphins to block the transmission of pain signals, and also stimulate the brain’s limbic and prefrontal regions. That’s where our penchant for grand romance and an appreciation of music lives.
Adrenaline raises your heart rate and excitement levels, while anandamide chills you out. Anandamide, aka the “bliss chemical,” is like the endorphins’ cool cousin. It binds to the same receptors in the brain as marijuana and produces the same warm, fuzzy feeling. And it’s not just chemicals that determine how we feel pain.
Our brains are pretty smart. They’re able to determine when a stimulus that’s causing us pain isn’t actually a threat, even when our bodies are screaming that it is. That initial scary moment coupled with the realization that we’d been duped by our senses actually brings us pleasure. The concept is called “benign masochism.” It’s what tells us it’s fun to eat ghost peppers, ride roller coasters, and take a whiff of old milk.
Geoffrey R. O. Durso: “So, if I put myself in a situation that is very likely to cause me pain, that means any positive experience out of that is magnified because it’s unexpected, it’s surprising.”
Now, for the most part, we avoid harm at all costs. But getting rid of paid can come at a price. For example, painkillers dull our aches… but they also blunt our sensitivity to pleasure.
Geoffrey R. O. Durso: “People who took acetaminophen in my studies, compared to a group that took a placebo, were evaluating the unpleasant things less negatively and these pleasant things less positively.”
And in another case, one group of cervical cancer survivors had nerves in their spinal cords cut to relieve abdominal pain. Unfortunately, they also lost the ability to orgasm. Pain and pleasure are two sides of the same coin – it’s hard to imagine one without the other.
Geoffrey R. O. Durso: “If you were to wake up tomorrow, and just no longer experience any pain that would be a bad day for you.”
So, it looks like pain is here to stay. We might as well enjoy it.