Ouch! A word that is often said by people when they have a painful experience such as stubbing their toe on the corner of a table leg or after touching something that was too hot. Generally following these painful experiences, individuals tend to take actions to lessen the chance that the painful experience happens again. Similar observations are seen in the case of pleasure (though there isn’t a common word said). For instance, the pleasurable experience of smelling a favorite candle or receiving a complement such as “the color blue looks good on you”, often encourages one to take actions to increase the likelihood that the pleasurable experience occurs again.
According to English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do” (Bentham ,1780). This line of thought is viewed as the precursor to the psychoanalytic term the pleasure principle, which describes the tendency of people to avoid pain and seek pleasure for both biological and psychological needs (Snyder & Lopez, 2007). While psychoanalytical principles and theories are viewed with skepticism, scientists across many disciplines aim to understand the sensations of pain and pleasure.
Specifically, neuroscientists are asking about the neuronal basis or mechanistic pathways for pain and pleasure and have developed interesting findings. In a review (Leknes & Stacey, 2008), researchers demonstrate how pain and pleasure map onto similar regions in the brain, most notably the nucleus accumbens and ventral striatum (Figure 1).
In an older review, a researcher implicated that the mesostriatal circuit acts as a decision maker in the presence of a food reward and a painful stimulus, such that it can either escalate or decrease the response to the painful stimulus (Fields, 2007).
Even though it has been demonstrated that the sensation and perception of pain and pleasure stem from similar brain regions in the mind for definitive rewarding stimuli or painful stimuli, one may wonder what is the neuroscientific account for when pain is pleasurable? Which is often the case in BDSM. Well, according to recent research, when one experiences pain within a BDSM context there is activation of these various brain regions that results in a release of chemicals such as endorphins and endocannabinoids that activate the sensation of pleasure even though it was catalyzed by an act of pain thereby resulting in feel good pain or pain as pleasure (Wyuts & Morrens, 2022).
BEWARE: Spoilers for Black Mirror Season 4, Episode 6 below!
Television media has now brought these notions of pain as pleasure to the public forefront and the television show Black Mirror takes it a step further in season 4, episode 6, “Black Museum”. In this episode, audience members bear witness to a doctor who utilizes experimental technology to improve his performance as a doctor but becomes a sadomasochist, or individual who derives pleasure from the pain of others. The experimental technology is an implant in his brain that allows him to feel what someone else is feeling without any of the effects, so long as someone else is wearing a cap, similar to those used in EEG studies. The cap acts like an emitter and the doctor’s implant the receiver. For a full account of the doctor’s experience please refer to this blog. In the show the technology is two parts and involves two individuals, what if the EEG style cap could be developed for the use by one individual?
One idealistic way this could be is if rather than recording brain activity the cap stimulated similar patterns of brain activity from various pleasurable situations (possibly based off of numerous imaging studies of pleasurable moments?). This would then provide novel experiences of pleasure and potentially painful experiences that are pleasurable to the individual without necessarily engaging in the actions. If such developments and adjustments were able to be made then the world would have a new sex toy on the market and uniquely a sex toy that does not mimic genitalia or physically stimulate erogenous zones to produce pleasure.
Dwilson, S. D. (2017, December 29). ‘Black Mirror’: All About Penn Jillette’s Pain Addict [SPOILERS]. Heavy. https://heavy.com/entertainment/2017/12/penn-jilette-pain-addict-black-mirror-museum-buy/
Fields H. L. (2007). Understanding how opioids contribute to reward and analgesia. Regional anesthesia and pain medicine, 32(3), 242–246. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rapm.2007.01.001
Leknes, S., Tracey, I. A common neurobiology for pain and pleasure. Nat Rev Neurosci 9, 314–320 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn2333
Malenka R.C., Nestler E.J., Hyman S.E. (2009). Sydor A, Brown RY (eds.). Molecular Neuropharmacology: A Foundation for Clinical Neuroscience (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill Medical. pp. 147–148, 367, 376.
Snyder, C. R., & Lopez, S. J. (2007). Positive psychology: The scientific and practical explorations of human strengths. Sage Publications, Inc.
Wuyts, E., & Morrens, M. (2022). The biology of BDSM: a systematic review. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 19(1), 144-157. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsxm.2021.11.002