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It Hurts So Good


Emcee Steve Seabury and his cohost from Guinness World records have found eight willing victims. “Are you guys ready to witness some fuckin’ pain?” Seabury shouts to the crowd of a few hundred onlookers. They cheer—and groan—their approval. This is the climax of the New York City hot sauce expo, held in March near Madison Square Garden. 

Nearly 50 vendors fill the hall, and names like Defcon Sauces and Hellfire Hot Sauce should serve as beware-of-free-samples warnings. Still, dozens of tasters holding their bellies line a far wall, their bodies crumpled. Some spit into empty beer cups or stare blankly. Wives and girlfriends stand nearby, rolling their eyes.

And that’s just the human fallout from commercial-grade hot-pepper tinctures. Each of the bold men (and one woman) who take their turn up on the stage has signed a waiver to go much hotter. The challenge: to eat three Carolina Reaper peppers. These firebombs average roughly 1.6 million Scoville Heat Units (SHU), about 300 times hotter than a jalapeno.

The Reaper has been newly crowned as the King of Chiles by Guinness, so whoever can beat the heat today will enter the annals. The Guinness guy covers the ground rules: To contend for the speed record, contestants must eat each pepper separately and then wait 60 seconds without drinking water or hurling.

Things go south almost immediately. The first contestant downs the payload in about 19 seconds, and initially he seems fine. But halfway through the waiting period, he starts jumping up and down, hooting and clamping his hands on top of his head like a cartoon character about to blow. Next is Ted Barrus, known as the Fire Breathing Idiot on his YouTube show, who clocks in at 15.68. His face reddens; beads of sweat break out across his brow. The minute expires, but Barrus doesn’t. He dashes offstage and pukes into a trash can. “I’m alive!” he crows. “I’m high as fuck!”

For the moment, he is the king of pain.


Our response to

You’ve probably experienced it too. For endurance athletes with shaking, fatigued muscles, this biochemical benefit is the much-heralded runner’s high. After about 30 minutes of intense exercise, specialized cells release endorphins and anandamide, two mood-enhancing chemicals, into the bloodstream to relieve those aching legs. You’ve received a hormonal assist.

Chile heads do that without actual exertion. If you create enough of an “ouch” moment, your cells will pump out a cocktail of adrenaline, endorphins, and dopamine to promote calm and help you function until the unpleasantness passes. You know that the fiery nuking of your mouth is only temporary, but your central nervous system doesn’t. It senses the burn and reacts.

The same thing happens with psychologically alarming situations. Your conscious mind doesn’t wait to find out why you’re terrified: You could be about to fall off a tall building to certain death. Or you could just be strapped into a roller coaster designed to crank up the panic by slowly, ominously climbing a steep ascent—click, click, click—toward a scream-inducing plunge.

Which means your reward responses can be hacked.

The upshot is a new wave of cheap, meaningless MTV-type jackassery. There are chile heads, marathon coaster riders, and horror fans hoping to jump ever higher at the next Saw movie.

In this modern age, men seem obsessed with finding extreme yet paradoxically safe ways to induce that hurting-but-high feeling through the controlled administration of various severe-pain stimulations. Basically, we want to feel as if we’re living on the edge; we just don’t want to die there. The term for that is “benign masochism.” It was coined by Paul Rozin, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, who last year began teasing out exactly why we find these strange obsessions so attractive.

In a recent paper in the journal Judgment and Decision Making, Rozin surveyed hundreds of people to find out how their favorite affliction-as-enjoyment agitators stacked up. The stuff of Fear Factor ranked high, but the overall winner was more surprising because it requires actual effort: true physical exhaustion. What’s more, benign masochists don’t like to be just a little burned, scared, or wiped out. The majority, mostly men, seek the level just below the threshold at which the pain becomes intolerable.

That leaves modern masochists at a crossroads: You can pinch pimples, eat stinky cheeses, or take ice-cold showers for an easy, ecstatic feedback loop. Or you can work harder, inviting pain through exercise in pursuit of a legitimate reward.

“I don’t like it when my body is physically aroused and my heart is pounding,” says Rozin, 78, as he relaxes in a recliner in his campus office. “There are exceptions,” he deadpans, “like sex.”

But some scientists believe Rozin hasn’t taken his thesis far enough. They argue that the pain of exhaustion, much like the odd zing from listening to gross jokes or enduring a deep-tissue massage, is just another mind-over-body challenge to be conquered. Push yourself further than you ever imagined, the new argument goes, and you could reap even greater rewards than a mere high.


Embracing pain in

We’re not eating mastodons for dinner anymore. But evolutionary theorists tell us that even as societies became more agrarian, another outlet for pain seekers emerged—close-quarters combat. Every society, from the ancient Roman Empire to the modern Western world, has sent men into battle, each with his own fight-or-flight complex. Aside from the physiological payoff, survival was its own reward.

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