The Ecstasy of Agony

Neuroscience: Almost everybody gets pleasure from some kind of pain.

by Illustration by: Stephen Savage

Illustration by: Stephen Savage

Almost everybody gets pleasure from some kind of pain. Some people like their food so hot it makes them sweat; others get off on the "burn" that comes from a hellacious workout. Scientists, meanwhile, are hard at work figuring out why some things hurt so good.

Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital have discovered that the part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, which lights up when people feel pleasure, also does so when they feel pain. This, says David Borsook, one of the study's authors, proves that there's a bona fide intersection between pain and pleasure.

Your brain experiences pain in three ways: physically, emotionally, and as a perception of threat (that is, the fear associated with pain makes "alarm bells" go off in the mind). Previous research has already shown that all three sensations involve different circuitry in the brain. Borsook is the first to pinpoint a key region in the emotional perception of pain, and the first to show that this perception is present in the same area that responds to pleasurable activities like eating, gambling, and recreational drugs.

The discovery will be particularly helpful in Borsook's treatment of chronic pain sufferers. People with chronic pain have problems that have nothing to do with the sensory experience of pain, says Borsook. "Some have trouble getting pleasure out of normally pleasurable experiences. And some are prone to addiction. Now we have a better idea why."