The most penetrating observers of human nature have long noticed that pain and pleasure have a dark and secret kinship. As perverse as it may initially sound, pain – whether it’s emotional or physical pain – often seems to carry within it the prospect of some sort of covert gratification, the potential for some unspeakable thrill or reward. Freud frequently observed self-tormenting behavior in his patients and concluded that such self-torture is “without doubt enjoyable.” Nietzsche also believed that many of us take great pleasure in our own suffering, and he warned how easily a man can become covertly “tempted and urged forward…by that dangerous shiver of cruelty turned against himself.” “Every one who has a wound or hurt anywhere,” William James wrote in 1892, “a sore tooth…will ever and anon press it just to bring out the pain.”

A paper published in the journal Science last week provides another indication that people can often derive some sort of reward, probably mostly unconsciously, from their own pain. In the study described in the paper, 42 men and women sat alone in a room for 15 minutes with no gadgets, nothing on the walls to look at, nothing to read, and nothing to do. Many of them said they found the experience to be highly unpleasant. Rather than just do nothing and be alone with their thoughts, nearly half of the subjects, the paper reports, chose to press a button and deliver one or more electric shocks to themselves. The participants had previously experienced the same electric shock, and all of them initially found it to be painful or unpleasant enough that they said they would pay money to avoid experiencing it again. And yet one man, although deemed an “outlier” by the researchers, later shocked himself 190 times in 15 minutes, and at least one of the women shocked herself 9 times. Although the paper focuses its discussion primarily on how unpleasant it is for most us to have our minds not engaged in some pursuit or activity, one could say the most striking finding of the study was: Nearly half the people in the study deliberately chose, often more than once, to deliver painful electric shocks to themselves! Aside from perhaps a small “deviant” minority who are “masochists,” aren’t all of us supposed to avoid pain and pursue pleasure?

Neuroscience research has clearly shown that pain and pleasure activate much of the same neural circuitry in our brains and release many of the same neurochemicals. Beta-endorphin, for example, which appears to be the primary “pleasure” chemical in the brain – its release in our brains, that is, seems to be largely responsible for our feelings of pleasure or euphoria – is released not only by intensely pleasurable activities, such as eating delicious food, having sex, or bonding socially with other people, but also by pain. Burns and electrical shocks, for instance, have been shown in both people and experimental animals to release large amounts of endorphin into the brain. When “cutters” intentionally cut themselves, the cut triggers endorphin release in amounts that can be equivalent to a high dose of morphine. Brain imaging studies have also shown that when people who are chronically depressed think sad, painful thoughts – such as recalling a painful romantic breakup – the painful thought itself will instantly trigger the release of endorphin in their brains. Reward or “pleasure” centers in the brain have also been shown to not only be strongly activated by eating, having sex, and taking addictive drugs, but also by burns, electric shocks, and intense muscle pain.

Partly based on studies indicating that pain and emotional distress of all types release potentially rewarding neurochemicals like endorphin into the brain, and partly based on our own clinical observations and other data, Todd Ritchey and I have developed a detailed and unifying model proposing that people frequently develop unconscious biochemical addictions to distressing emotional states such as anxiety, anger, regret, self-pity, and emotional pain. Such “emotional addictions,” we have further proposed, are the core driving force for nearly all psychological disorders, and effectively generate an “addictive drive” that acts to repeatedly and dysfunctionally throw the brain and body out of equilibrium, or homeostasis, into states of pain and distress. Fortunately, an opposing, healthy force, which we refer to as the “homeostatic drive,” is biologically designed to bring the brain and body into equilibrium, or homeostasis. We have devised a powerful new therapeutic method based on this framework that has been extraordinarily effective in helping people overcome a wide variety of psychological and physical ills, including drug addiction, alcoholism, anxiety disorders, chronic depression, and chronic pain. By helping our clients overcome addictions of all types, including their core addictions to pain and emotional distress, the unhealthy addictive drive within them can be effectively, and often dramatically, weakened, and the healthy homeostatic drive can be greatly strengthened.

Our clients, like all of us, are most challenged when they feel alone, sad, anxious, or hurt – this is when self-destructive, addictive dynamics are typically at their most potent. The study reported in Science simulates, in effect, a state of aloneness, which can be extremely challenging for almost all of us. When any of us feels alone, we probably won’t, like the subjects in this study, deliver a literal electric shock to ourselves, but we might deliver the “charge” of the pain in a different way. Some people do it more overtly – by physically cutting themselves, for example, or by picking mercilessly at their fingernails. Other people do it in more subtle or covert ways – by recalling painful memories, or by not doing something they know they should do. Maybe this has happened to you. You don’t do something you need to do day after day, and then maybe almost every night before you go to sleep you think to yourself: Dammit! Why didn’t I do that thing again today that I know I really need to do! I have to do it tomorrow! But then you don’t do it tomorrow either. This cycle can generate what amounts to a series of painful shocks that you may administer to yourself, usually unconsciously, on a daily basis.

When people are said to “beat themselves up” with self-condemning or self-judging thoughts, it isn’t just a figure of speech – severe self-judgment seems to be very much comparable to cutting or hurting oneself physically. Emotional pain activates many of the same circuits in the brain as physical pain, releases almost all of the same stress hormones, and can often be just as damaging in many ways as physical pain.

Clearly something must be rewarding or reinforcing about pain or people wouldn’t repeatedly choose in some instances to self-administer something acutely painful, like a cut or an electric shock. Almost half the people in the study published in Science “liked” or responded to the electric shock enough – or at least got something out of it – that they tried shocking themselves again.

When each of us begins to truly see and understand the specific dynamics that can drive us to create unnecessary pain in our lives, in our relationships, and in ourselves – to use our pain, in effect, as a drug – we can overcome any unhealthy or destructive pattern, and connect more fully to the healthiest, most vital, and most loving parts of ourselves.

Further Reading:

James, W. 1892/1961. Psychology: The briefer course. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, p. 314

Freud, S. 1989. The Freud reader. Gay, P. (Ed.).New York: Norton, p. 588

Montgomery, J. & Ritchey, T.  2010. The Answer Model: A new path to healing.  Santa Monica, CA: TAM Books

Nietzsche, F. 1886/1998. Beyond good and evil. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 121

Wilson, T. D. et al. 2014. Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind. Science 345, 75-77

Image: The Guardian

About the Author

John Montgomery, Ph.D

John Montgomery, Ph.D., is a neuroscientist and writer. He received his Ph.D. from Caltech and has written for publications such as The Economist and The Washington Post.

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