Sunday, May 22, 2011

Do Masochists Like Pain?

(Also check out the video version)
Can pain be pleasurable? I say this as a masochist who finds self-injury enjoyable. No, for me, stimulating nerves through causing tissue damage intentionally or even sometimes unintentionally can cause feelings of pleasure. But is that pain?

If you ask someone what pain is, they would probably say something like “a negative sensation that occurs when nerves are damaged to alert the brain that there is injury and to discourage use of the injured body part to reduce further damage”. I’ve got that. There is negative sensation. But along with the negative is a positive sensation. I find the most enjoyable pain is that which merges both negative and positive. What is the positive sensation? Is it pain or is it something else?

When I try to explain to people that pain is sometimes a positive experience, I encounter a lot of resistance. Most people only feel the negative sensation and so can’t conceive of a definition of pain that includes positive sensations. A lot of people try to tell me that I am just delusional or something, that positive sensations from pain can’t exist. While I accept the concept of positive sensations from pain as naturally as everyone else accepts negative sensations from pain, I have started to consider the idea that what I feel isn’t pain in the strictest sense, but a positive sensation resulting from nerve damage that is distinct from pain. For lack of a better term, let’s call this pleasure-from-damage. Under this model, damaging my body may cause either or both pain and pleasure-from-damage.

On the other hand, we should also consider philosopher David Kellogg Lewis’ ideas of “mad pain” and “Martian pain”, proposed as part of an argument about functionalism. Mad pain is a hypothetical type of pain felt by a madman who feels no discomfort from it and instead becomes focused on mathematics and snapping his fingers. Martian pain refers to negative sensations felt by hypothetical alien beings as a result of entirely different physical processes than in human beings. His point was that both of these bizarre types of pain still count as pain. If we accept that Lewis’ mad pain still counts as pain, then pleasure-from-damage also counts as pain.

We can say that pain refers strictly to the way damaged nerves trigger a response from the brain and does not imply whether or not the sensation is unpleasant, though an unpleasant sensation is the norm. Pain can be described as in two categories: that which has negative sensations, and that which has positive sensations. I believe masochists often dub these bad pain and good pain respectively. Physiologically speaking, the body does naturally produce dopamine as a result of pain so as to reduce the negative sensation, so good pain could just be pain in which more dopamine is produced than is necessary.

Given the prevalent demonization of sadomasochists out there, I thought I’d submit some respectful intellectual content to the web to try and calm things down. My being a masochist doesn’t make me fundamentally irrational or crazy. I’m an overly analytical geek like the rest of you.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Your reasoning is in-depth, however I believe the answer is as simple as merely the release of endorphins. The body releases endorphins during times of pain so it would make sense that some people either release more endorphins than others or are more sensitive to the pleasure of endorphins. Interesting topic.