From The Wall Street Journal:
A few years ago, an Australian scientist was bushwhacking through the wilderness when he felt a twig snap against his leg. Or so he thought. He’d actually been nipped by an Eastern brown snake, one of the most venomous serpents on Earth. Oblivious, he walked on and even went swimming in a nearby river before blacking out and nearly dying.
We’ve probably all heard similar stories, about athletes or warriors who suffer serious injury but power through without realizing they’re hurt. What’s surprising is what happened next. Nothing if not intrepid, the scientist plunged back into the bush six months later for another hike—at which point he again felt something snap against his leg. He crumpled to the ground in agony, writhing and screaming.
But this time, it really was just a twig. Identical sensation, completely different reaction. “There is no grievous injury . . . just a very powerful memory of last time,” explains science writer Leigh Cowart about the story. “The basic sensory processing is the same, but the cognitive understanding of the pain differs.” All of which goes to show that, for something so basic to human experience, pain remains a highly subjective and even slippery phenomenon.
There’s possibly no one alive more qualified to write about pain than Leigh Cowart, who uses the pronoun they and prefers the Mx. honorific. A self-described “gorehound,” the author has been, at different points in life, “a ballet dancer, an overexerciser, a serious bulimic and self-harmer, a tattoo aficionado” and a hard-core BDSM enthusiast. This eye-opening book, “Hurts So Good: The Science and Culture of Pain on Purpose,” explores why so many people pursue painful activities like these, and especially what people get out of pain when they encounter—or achieve—it. “Many people engage in the ritual of deliberately feeling bad to feel better,” the author notes, “and once I started looking for the pattern, I saw it everywhere.”
. . . .
Beyond plumbing their personal past, the author also engages in what might be called gonzo science writing. They dive into one excruciating situation after another (a polar bear plunge, a chili pepper-eating contest), and things go hilariously awry. The mush from one superhot pepper (2.2 million Scoville units; jalapeños max out at 8,000) burns the author’s mouth like “Dante’s gazpacho.” In their stupor, they then rub some into their eye. The author is especially good at describing escalating pain: just when you think a passage has reached a crescendo, Mx. Cowart ups the ante with some new turn of phrase. More than once, I found myself sucking in my breath and feeling my feet tingle as some new horror unfolded on the page.
I especially enjoyed the chapter on extreme running, which covers the fiendish Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra in Tennessee. Every hour, the contestants in this ultramarathon have to complete a four-mile circuit. Doesn’t sound too bad, except that the race sometimes continues all day and all night for nearly three days, with zero breaks. Quite literally, the last person standing wins. Overall, the chapter is a beautiful reflection on the capacity for human endurance, and for pushing yourself beyond what you thought possible. It’s also wickedly funny. God help me, but I still laugh at one poor soul who, 40-some hours in, pitched forward in exhaustion and crashed asleep atop a mailbox.
Yet this running chapter does highlight a problem with the author’s objective to find masochists everywhere they looked. Before the Tennessee race, the organizer initially revoked the author’s press pass because he objected to the pastime being characterized as masochism. As he wrote, “like many sport[s], there is discomfort involved, but it is a cost of competition, not an objective.”
The author objects to that distinction, but I think the organizer is right. For most runners and ballet dancers, pain is a byproduct of their ultimate goal—to run fast or dance beautifully.
. . . .
[T]his book makes a far better case for the importance of pain in dance or athletics than I expected. Imagine you could win an Olympic marathon without enduring any pain. You’d still have to train, but you could sidestep all the misery—the soreness, the burning lungs, the bloody blisters, the toenails falling off. Would you accept this deal? Many of us probably would; suffering stinks. But the author makes a strong argument that the medal would mean far less to you than to someone who suffered for it. Suffering creates meaning, and the joy of victory is sweeter for having suffered.
Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)