Pain, Pleasure, & Black Mirror: Could there be a Sex Toy for your Brain?

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). 

Depiction of overlapping brain regions for the perception of pain and pleasure.

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.  

Sources:

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

4 thoughts on “Pain, Pleasure, & Black Mirror: Could there be a Sex Toy for your Brain?

  1. Hello Alexandria,

    I enjoyed reading your post. I found the discussion on how pain and pleasure are mapped onto similar regions in the brain intriguing and offers a possible reason for how pain can be pleasurable.

    One thing I thought about while reading your post is how is pleasurable pain and painful pain expressed in the brain. Meaning, masochistic people derive pleasure from pain, but not every pain they experience is pleasurable. Leading to the question of what differentiates pleasurable pain from painful pain in the brain of a person who is a masochist?

    Great post!
    Sincerely, Bashaina (Shasha)

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  2. I thought the pleasure principle (idea that people avoid pain and seek pleasure for biological and psychological needs) was interesting because it simplifies how humans behave constantly seeking to avoid pain and increase pleasure. It was even more fascinating to learn that pain and pleasure stem from similar brain regions including the nucleus accumbens (which we talked about a lot in PS234). Furthermore, I found it super interesting to learn that “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). To me, this makes me think about weightlifting and working because as someone very into these things, I constantly experience pain and pleasure in a similar way that Wyuts & Morrens explain. I’ve heard a good amount about this pleasurable pain (specifically that it has to do with endorphins) and this post has inspired me to learn more about it! Thank you for sharing!

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  3. Hi Alexx,

    Thank you for taking the time to dive into these topics (and one of my favorite shows!). I definitely see how these two fundamental human emotions map onto each other. Your post made me think about the fact that it is possible for some people to be unable to feel pain- thus begging the question, will brain damage to that area mean that those individuals will also be unable to feel pleasure? Do these emotions come together since they map onto similar regions in the brain?

    The doctor in the show also became highly addicted to the sensation of pain (without the physical costs) as you mentioned, and I wonder how one would define the two based solely on the brain stimulation (as in your idea of a new toy). In a sense, what is pain? What is pleasure? if we are solely feeling the brain stimulation. If pain could easily be pleasurable for some, is there even a boundary?

    These are just a few of the thoughts I had while reading your post. Great work!

    ~Aicha

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  4. Obviously Black Mirror is based in fiction but the idea of implants in our brain to create some unique sensations is a fascinating topic to me. In a situation where we can implement technology that can elicit stimulations to our nervous systems, would ethics even allow it? It will be a fascinating day when science begins debating the ethics of brain implants.

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