The word “pain” comes from the Latin word “poena” meaning punishment. It is sad to think that at some point in history people of various cultures and religious beliefs believed that when they experienced pain they were actually being punished by a higher power or due to their actions in their previous lives. The positive aspect is that many people no longer believe that pain means that an outside universal force is punishing them.
However, the pain experience is still perceived as a punishment of some kind as seen when people use phrases such as, “I did 3 hours of gardening yesterday and today I am paying the price.”
Depending on the dictionary, there are a number of definitions for pain & pleasure.
Pain: A distressing sensation in a particular part of the body
Pleasure: An event or activity from which one derives enjoyment
What if instead of focusing on eliminating pain, one could succeed at actually making pain pleasurable? I know it is a crazy idea and not a good one to share with those suffering from debilitating and horrible pain, but it is something I frequently think about.
Conventionally, pain and pleasure are considered to be at the opposite ends of the emotional spectrum.
However, there are a few fascinating papers discussing the anatomical, neurological and physiological similarities between pain and pleasure. The studies discuss the role of the opioid and dopamine systems in modulating both pain and pleasure.
What if one day with a ‘flick of a switch” we could alleviate suffering in individuals by allowing them to experience their pain as pleasure? Although this currently seems like an impossible science fiction mission, I truly believe it is worthy of continued research.
You see, I do not like spicy hot foods; in fact I am so sensitive that if I accidentally taste Sriracha sauce I scream and spit it out. Meanwhile my wife and 2 of my 3 daughters love the chilli sauce. I find it absolutely fascinating that what I find to be a painful and awful experience; others find pleasurable. Why?
We all experience the burning hot sensations in our mouths after biting into a chilli pepper, yet some of us find the EXACT same food as pleasurable while other like me, well…
There is also no shortage of other similar examples where athletes experience significant pain during their sport, yet they do not “suffer” and frequently report it as being pleasurable.
There are also women who train in ‘hypnobirthing’ and having rapturous experiences while giving birth, all because of an apparent mindset that birth is pleasurable, not painful.
Finally there is S & M (Sadism & Masochism). The terms sadist and masochist refer respectively to one who enjoys giving and receiving pain. The use of pain as a sexual stimulant has been practiced since the ancient times.
A person who enjoys an activity that appears to be painful is referred to as being a masochist. They basically experience pleasure from acts involving the experiencing of pain. Why?
For several decades psychologists such as Sigmund Freud have been studying this phenomenon, however I have yet to read a satisfactory explanation to this obviously intriguing condition. In the meantime I continue to avoid hot peppers and I have no interest in finding enjoyment either out of eating spicy foods or S & M. Perhaps my lack of desire and willingness to change is my issue!
Reference: Leknes S, Tracey I. A common neurobiology for pain and pleasure. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2008 Apr;9(4):314-20.