The concept of some types of pain being enjoyable while others are agonizing can be attributed to various factors, including psychological and physiological aspects. The idea of "benign masochism" describes the phenomenon of seeking out mild or non-harmful pain for pleasure. This can be explained by a combination of psychological and neurological factors:
- Psychological factors: Our perception of pain is not solely determined by its physical nature but also by our psychological and emotional responses. When we engage in activities that cause mild discomfort or pain, such as eating spicy foods or participating in BDSM, our brains can interpret these experiences as pleasurable due to various psychological factors, including anticipation, excitement, and the context in which the pain is experienced.
- Desensitization and conditioning: In some cases, people can learn to enjoy painful experiences through repeated exposure. For example, young children may initially find spicy foods aversive, but over time, they can become desensitized and even develop a preference for them. This is a result of the brain's ability to associate the pain with non-threatening experiences and pleasurable sensations.
- Neurological factors: Some forms of pain, like the spiciness of chili peppers, can trigger the release of endorphins in the body. Endorphins are natural painkillers and mood enhancers, and they can create a sense of euphoria or pleasure. This neurological response can contribute to the enjoyment of certain painful experiences.
- Context and control: People can find pleasure in pain when they have a sense of control over the experience. In BDSM, for example, participants have clear boundaries and consent, which allows them to differentiate between "good pain" (enjoyable) and "bad pain" (potentially harmful). The awareness that the pain won't cause serious harm contributes to the enjoyment.
- Complexity of the human brain: The human brain is capable of processing a wide range of emotions and sensations. There may be overlapping neural pathways between pain and pleasure, which could explain why they can sometimes be intertwined. This is supported by studies showing that certain areas of the brain are active during both painful and pleasurable experiences.
Pain is a uniquely human indulgence
This is a uniquely human indulgence. Scientists have tried, and failed, to induce a preference for chilli in rats. Animals have been trained to self-harm, but only by ‘positive reinforcement’, in which animals are taught to associate pain with a reward. “Generally, when an animal experiences something negative, it avoids it,” explains Paul Rozin, from the University of Pennsylvania.
Benign masochism and BDSM
Benign masochism is something that those who engage in BDSM won’t find surprising. Mistress Alexandra, a professional sadist based in London, explains: “We make a difference between good pain and bad pain. Bad pain indicates that something is not right, something we have to pay instant attention to. Then there’s good pain which is enjoyable. For example, when the shoulder starts pulling during bondage, that’s potentially unsafe so we release it.”
Overall, the relationship between pain and pleasure is complex and varies from person to person. While some individuals may enjoy certain types of pain, it's important to note that this does not mean they seek out pain that causes real harm or suffering. It's essential to prioritize safety, consent, and communication when engaging in activities involving pain for pleasure.