This isn’t news to many people (ahem, Fifty Shades of Grey fans) but a new study published in the journal Pain shows that pain can, at times, actually feel good.
People can experience pleasure during a painful experience if the experience turns out to be less painful than what they were expecting. Siri Leknes, one of the study’s authors, said:
It is not hard to understand that pain can be interpreted as less severe when an individual is aware that it could have been much more painful. Less expected, however, is the discovery that pain may be experienced as pleasant if something worse has been avoided.
In the study, 16 participants were hooked up to a device that applied painful heat to their arms. Their brain activity was monitored when the heat pain was applied. The pain started off as mild and then went up as time went on; participants could see on a screen and anticipate the level of pain coming to them.
What researchers found was that when people anticipated a higher level of pain then they actually received, they reported it as pleasurable. Leknes also said:
The likely explanation is that the subjects were prepared for the worst and thus felt relieved when they realized the pain was not going to be as bad as they had feared. In other words, a sense of relief can be powerful enough to turn such an obviously negative experience as pain into a sensation that is comforting or even enjoyable.
The study wasn’t at all looking at sex, but that’s the first thing that comes to mind when I read about it. I mean, it’s not shocking information that there’s a thin line between pain and pleasure. The ridiculous popularity of the Fifty Shades of Grey, which features a great deal of S&M sex, shows that people are aware of (and desirous of) that “hurts so good” feeling. Tia Ghose of NBC News posits that this study could also shed some light on why people love the “burn” of eating spicy foods. What do you think?