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The psychology behind liking spicy food and pain

From Hurts So Good: The Science and Culture of Pain on Purpose by Leigh Cowart, copyright © 2021. Reprinted by permission of PublicAffairs, an imprint of Hachette Ebook Group, Inc.

Parked within the dusty lot of the county fairgrounds in Auburn, California, I’m within the driver’s seat of a rental automobile, palms imperceptibly trembling. There’s a chilly bottle of water sweating within the cup holder, a one-use relic of end-stage capitalism that can outlast us all. I’m recording the preamble to my pepper-eating video over and over, the insides of my lungs thrumming with pleasure. (I’m scared.) The seats are deep and darkish, and all of the lights shining by the icons on the sprint are crimson, making me really feel like I’m in a spaceship. This feels ominous, applicable, given the journey I’m about to blast off on. I’m stalling with repeated takes, chipperly speaking to my cellphone time and again, wedging it this manner and that within the steering wheel. I’m stalling even now, even penning this, considerably reticent to completely revisit the sadistic contours of the Carolina Reaper pepper expertise I used to be about to chunk into.

It’s a marvel, this, the most popular pepper on the earth: its inexperienced stem between my fingers, its physique having all of the innocuity of a strawberry, with which it shares each dimension and hue. it, I really feel the identical approach as after I maintain a tab of acid or a check tube of significantly virulent Pseudomonas or a superlatively imply plastic flogger. The potential of a factor, radiating outward from it at a frequency solely heard by these with ears tuned to its name. I’ve taken mushrooms on function, and I’ve taken mushrooms not on function, and I have to say, I handled the standard object carrying the expertise inside it with rather more reverence after I knew of its Treasured Cargo.

I do know what this pepper is. I do know who grew it: Greg Foster, who holds the world file for many Reaper peppers eaten in a single minute (120 grams, which got here out to sixteen peppers, if you wish to give it a shot). I do know that this pepper is scorching: I do know its Scoville warmth unit rating (2.2 million, or roughly 600 instances hotter than a single jalapeño pepper), and I do know what it’s going to do to me (very unhealthy issues). I’ve learn numerous essays about what it’s prefer to eat the most popular pepper on the earth, watched a man on YouTube smoke one in his bong, flipped by episodes of Scorching Ones, the place celebrities like Idris Elba and Paul Rudd choke down molten-hot rooster wings whereas being interviewed and weeping. I’ve spoken with world-class scorching pepper eaters, learn stacks of scientific papers about capsaicin, know that dairy and alcohol can be utilized to assuage the ache that’s coming. I assume I’m as prepared as I might probably be.

However I didn’t carry beer or a milkshake or something that may uncouple the capsaicin molecules from the receptors in my mouth. Silly human. I would like the total expertise.


“In case you hold them in, it doesn’t matter what you do, you’re going to have, like, the worst night time of your life,” says the UK Chili Queen, Shahina Waseem. She tells me that out of the 71 hot-pepper-eating competitions she’s entered, she has did not throw up afterward 11 instances, which meant that she obtained the dreaded cap cramps: gastric misery attributable to capsaicin within the GI tract. “You may’t stand up, you’re actually on the ground like palms up, you’re begging, and also you get chilly sweats, scorching sweats, every part, and also you’re actually begging for loss of life.” She seems to be me within the eye, severe because the hell she’s describing. “It’s that painful. It’s like being stabbed a number of instances, and it’s the worst feeling.” After that, she says, she realized her lesson. No matter occurs, she has to throw up. “It burns coming again up as effectively. However then you definitely suppose, ‘Nicely, I’d a lot somewhat have that than, like, twelve hours of being on the ground, hunkered up, crying and screaming in agony.’”

Welcome to the 2019 Pepper Pageant.

Shahina and I are chatting in a small, stand-alone construction on the California state fairgrounds surrounded by volunteers on the lookout for their orders and musicians hiding from the solar, an array of single-serving chip baggage, moist beers from the ice tub, and pepper eaters. Aggressive pepper eaters. The truth is, among the most extremely ranked pepper eaters on the planet. Shahina, one of many headliners for right now’s important occasion, sits throughout from me. She is animated, sharp, placing. All of the announcers right now will touch upon her small stature, as if her lack of bearishness would put her at an obstacle on this battle of wills. It’s one thing American cis males like to do, act like smallness inherently brings with it a aggressive drawback, even when that competitors has nothing to do with stature. Sir, this can be a chili-eating competitors, not a soccer sport. The Atomik Menace didn’t get his identify as a result of he’s a giant dude; he obtained it downing superhots.

Shahina’s nervous. She tells me that rumor has it that her opponent right now, Dustin “the Atomik Menace” Johnson, doesn’t really feel ache in his mouth from chili peppers. A relative newcomer to the scene, he burst onto the worldwide pepper-eating circuit together with his win at Ed Currie’s Inaugural Worldwide Pepper-Consuming Contest held a month in the past. Ed Currie, for these exterior the chili pepper group, is the creator of the Carolina Reaper pepper, which, as I’ll expertise firsthand quickly sufficient, is the present file holder for the most popular pepper on the earth.

Dustin, nevertheless, refutes the rumor. “I do really feel the burn. I actually couldn’t think about caring in any respect about spicy meals if I didn’t,” he wrote to me after I requested. “I nearly suppose I’d view it as narcissistic to enter contests with none feeling in any way,” he says, noting that he’s simply “comparatively gifted that I don’t have main reactions.” He doesn’t, nevertheless, normally purge after competitions. “I don’t get cramps an excessive amount of till they’re about absolutely digested,” he says, although I can not inform how a lot of his stoicism is a well-tuned efficiency to psych out future rivals. He’s quiet in particular person, well-spoken in writing, and terrifies individuals within the aggressive pepper-eating circuit. Later within the day, Dustin the Stoic and Shahina the Emotive will battle it out at a plastic picnic desk, stuffing themselves with superhot peppers, with out water or any aid, in entrance of a cheering, rapt viewers who’s there to drink chilly beer and watch them endure.

Exterior, a small crowd of individuals mills in regards to the competition. There are meals vans and a stage for the bands; individuals promoting trip packages, snow cones, and T-shirts; a weed supply service that may’t, technically, ship in Auburn, which is heartbreaking. Rick Tracewell, the organizer of this occasion, stands in a white tent earlier than a number of cardboard bins lined in plastic and bursting with brightly coloured peppers. However the primary occasion, for now anyway, is contained in the hole, one-story constructing that stands low and lengthy by the bounce home: the new sauce expo.

It’s a blessing, this indoor exercise, although considerably ironic that the most popular happenings are coolly shielded from the burning September noon solar. Inside, the partitions are lined with the tables of scorching sauce distributors giving samples of their wares and chatting with pepperheads. There’s every part from honey-sweet pepper jams served on buttery crackers with gobs of cream cheese to concentrated capsaicin tincture scorching sufficient to essentially make you wail. At one desk, as I’m watering from a very imply habanero sauce, I ask the person behind the desk why he has a sword. He provides to swallow it and let me pull it out of his throat, and after I do it, I can really feel his throat muscle groups twitch across the blade. The particular person subsequent to him then whips out a full mattress of nails and asks me to step on their chest whereas they lie on it. I determine that I like the pepper competition.

Everyone seems to be right here right now for one apparent motive: ache—theirs, or another person’s. For now, it’s right here on this room: {couples} with unequal capsaicin tolerances sampling salsa and falling into slapstick; individuals turning crimson and performing nonchalant; individuals turning crimson and never performing nonchalant. There are few true bystanders, abstaining fully from the peppers and their sauces, however they’re nonetheless right here, witness to the ache contorting so many faces within the crowd. Later, although, the ache will probably be spectacle on the pepper-eating contest. However no matter whether or not the ache is on show or personal, right here right now it’s coming from one little molecule: capsaicin.

Hurts so Good: The Science & Culture of Pain on Purpose by Leigh Cowart book cover with red text on black background and a sword, whip, and fishhook
Courtesy of Public Affairs

There are lots of misconceptions about capsaicin, and for that matter capsaicinoids, a household of molecules of which it’s a outstanding member. I’ve heard that it will possibly burn a gap in your throat or your abdomen, however that’s not true. It additionally isn’t concerned in gastric reflux or heartburn. I’ve heard individuals say that it will possibly make you throw up blood, or shit blood, or trigger in any other case graphic harm, however except you’re downing pure, crystallized capsaicin—which is, in that type, very harmful—it’s simply not the case. (I’ll say that when you’ve got a bleeding gastric ulcer and throw up after consuming a pepper, there will probably be blood in your puke, however the blood gained’t be the pepper’s fault.) Capsaicin allergy symptoms are uncommon and have an effect on fewer than 1 p.c of the inhabitants, however, like laundry detergent and poison oak and nickel jewellery, capsaicin may cause contact dermatitis in a few of these individuals. For most individuals, although, consuming scorching peppers isn’t dangerous—it simply hurts. And amazingly, the burn you’re feeling after a steaming plate of buldak or Nashville-style scorching rooster has nothing to do together with your style buds.

If we had been to anthropomorphize molecules, I might say that capsaicin is a intelligent little shit. Structurally associated to vanillin—the molecule in particular orchid pods answerable for vanilla’s creamy, iconic taste—capsaicin is a trickster. It doesn’t fuck with the style receptors in your mouth that alert to issues like candy, bitter, bitter, salt, and umami. No, capsaicin fucks with temperature receptors referred to as TRPV1s.

Particularly, capsaicin is a warmth mimic. It prompts sensory neurons that alert the mind to the presence of precise warmth, not the taste of warmth however actual, kinetic vitality warmth. If you eat a extremely popular pepper, capsaicin binds a particular receptor, the type that warns your mind when your espresso is simply too scorching. When the rivals right now begin horking down handfuls of the most popular peppers on the earth, their brains will alert to the presence of a molten, harmful substance—lava, scorching coals, precise hearth, no matter. However there is no such thing as a actual risk. The sport, then, is to take a seat there and face up to the very actual ache with out working screaming from the not-so-real hazard.

(Mint works equally, faking the feeling of chilly. Nonetheless, mint and scorching peppers act on completely different receptors. An Altoid and habanero won’t cancel one another out; in the event you eat them on the identical time, you’ll have created inside your mouth an edible Icy Scorching arthritis cream.)

How precisely do individuals decide simply how spicy a pepper is? In any case, the “world’s spiciest” designation is a coveted accolade, and a shifting goal. As such, peppers are ranked in keeping with the Scoville scale. This scale is used to find out the spiciness of a pepper, which correlates with a quantity reported in Scoville warmth items, or SHU. There are a few methods to do that check. The primary entails drying the pepper in query, then mixing smaller and smaller portions of the dried pepper powder in a mix of water and sugar, till style testers can not detect any spiciness. The diploma of dilution required to squelch the warmth corresponds with the Scoville rating of the pepper.

That was the unique and notoriously subjective model of the check, developed by American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville in 1921. At the moment, we now have high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), which is a cherry methodology for separating, figuring out, and quantifying the stuff of a liquid pattern. Utilizing HPLC, researchers can assess capsaicin concentrations with out having to depend on the nonstandard and relative sensitivities of the human mouth.

So, what does this scale seem like? On the backside, with a rating of 0 SHU, are bell peppers. They’ve the candy and verdant flavors of peppers, with not one of the warmth in any way. Poblano peppers, with their delicate, emerald flesh are available in at round 1,250 SHU. Authentic Tabasco sauce sits at 3,750 SHU, and jalapeños, as spicy as many individuals can take pleasure in, have a score of round 5,000 to eight,000 SHU.

Climbing up the dimensions, we hit cayenne peppers at 50,000 SHU. Triple which are habaneros (150,000 SHU). The peppers that the Indian military makes use of as the bottom for chili grenades (hand grenades that incapacitate with capsaicin), the bhut jolokia, rank at an astonishing 1,000,000 SHU.

However the hottest pepper on the earth, the Carolina Reaper, is available in at a whopping 2.2 million SHU. That’s 44,000 p.c hotter than a jalapeño pepper, for individuals who like just a little back-of-the-napkin math. Past that, pepper spray can stand up to round 5.3 million SHU, and pure, unadulter- ated crystalline capsaicin clocks in at 16 million SHU.

On the pepper competition, I’m surrounded by beginner {and professional} pepper victims alike sucking down taster spoons of condiments designed for ache. Day by day, across the total globe, about one-quarter of your entire world’s inhabitants tucks into meals seasoned to make their mouths harm at the least just a little bit, their eyes tearing over steaming dinner plates of phaal curry, buffalo wings, or Som Tam served Thai spicy with vibrant crimson curls of peppers studded all through. Scorching sauce is booming; by 2021, gross sales of the spicy slurries within the USs alone are anticipated to be a $1.65 billion trade. So why on earth do individuals eat intentionally painful meals?

“Ache may be enjoyable!” Dr. Paul Rozin’s raspy voice shimmers with glee. “I feel a very good case might be made that it’s terribly widespread. You’ve obtained a few million individuals doing it a bunch of instances a day.” Now, not like Rozin, who says that he’s not inclined towards painful stimuli, I’m an avowed masochist; I see masochism in every single place. I’m on the lookout for it, I’m discovering it, I’m obsessive about it. As such, one of many foundational research that has helped me make sense of it comes from Rozin. He’s the tutorial father of the idea of benign masochism. Once I say “many, many individuals take pleasure in ache,” it’s Rozin standing within the wings, nodding sagely. As a result of it’s not simply pleasure from the ache itself; pleasure from ache generally is a pleasure induced by the aid of the ache ceasing. “Some individuals in fact don’t take pleasure in these issues, however they benefit from the aid from them, so that they’ll expertise one thing disagreeable deliberately as a result of the ending of that could be very nice,” he tells me. “That’s not the identical as having fun with ache. Proper?” Or is it?

The query hangs within the air. It’s a giant one, and it resonates by the entire pages of this e-book. Upon reflection, I have to say, I don’t suppose that the concept of having fun with ache is so black-and-white. If an individual intentionally engages with ache, not as a result of they like the feeling of ache however as a result of they just like the sensations that come when the ache ends, I feel that qualifies as a taste of masochism. I feel this as a result of, anecdotally, and thru the years of experiences that I’ve had relayed to me by lots of of different individuals who dabble in deliberate struggling, when individuals discuss ache on function, they nearly at all times discuss what comes subsequent, how they really feel after the ache. The dominion over self. The endorphin rush, that hit of homebrew morphine, the lactic acid that makes the muscle groups tense with a delightful burn lengthy after the exercise has ended. Excessive-sensation-seeking individuals on the market utilizing their our bodies to check limits, to really feel one thing wild, to push themselves. There are masochists who’re strictly pain-seeking for the feeling of it, however, in my expertise, there are so, so many extra who use ache as a device to really feel one thing else. To really feel unhealthy to really feel higher.

Within the 2012 paper titled “Glad to Be Unhappy, and Different Examples of Benign Masochism,” Rozin seems to be on the intersection of ache and pleasure. Or somewhat, the very broad overlap. Within the research, Rozin and his colleagues requested members to charge 29 innately destructive experiences (like disappointment, mouth burn, concern, and exhaustion) on a scale of 1 to 100 primarily based on how pleasurable they discovered them. You learn that proper: Rozin and his workforce had been asking individuals how a lot they loved destructive experiences. And so they discovered that about half of the members loved these experiences, score them at across the midpoint of the enjoyment scale. That’s, it’s regular and customary to take pleasure in issues that really feel destructive. “Masochists take pleasure in struggling,” he says, “however the sort of struggling they take pleasure in is dependent upon the sort of masochism they’ve.”

However there’s extra! Rozin and his colleagues requested members when they obtained essentially the most enjoyment from destructive experiences. And wouldn’t you already know it, for wherever from one-quarter to two-thirds of members, the perfect a part of a destructive expertise was essentially the most excessive level they may stand. That’s, for plenty of of us (myself included!) the enjoyable in feelin’ unhealthy peaks proper on the restrict of what we will stand. It’s enjoyable till it undoubtedly is NOT anymore.

As social psychologist Brock Bastian writes in his e-book in regards to the position of struggling in happiness, “Benign masochism characterizes the enjoyment of the battle that arises when these simultaneous constructive and destructive feelings are activated.” Whether or not you’re whipping your self for Jesus or intercourse, working marathons for shallowness or penance, consuming spicy meals for the style or the burn, it’s all taking place on a sort of sliding scale of masochistic engagement. (Cautious readers will even be aware the fallibility of those “or” statements, as if such practices aren’t constructed on a mix of many sorts of motivations and rewards!)

“An actual masochist would possibly truly take pleasure in ache, which isn’t threatening to his or her physique,” Rozin tells me. However who, then, is a actual masochist? How do you delineate between sexual masochism, benign masochism, and different kinds of ache on function?

“I’m not attempting to make any enormous, overarching declarative assertion in regards to the nature of issues,” I say to Rozin. “I’m simply attempting to have a look at this attention-grabbing factor from lots of completely different angles and get individuals eager about the position of ache in their very own lives. However I’m not attempting to jot down a self-help e-book or make a grand principle of masochism.” I’m simply attempting to have a look at among the the explanation why.

So why, then, do individuals like spicy meals? “I don’t suppose there’s one reply to it,” says Rozin. “I feel benign masochism is a bit of it, nevertheless it’s additionally the truth that this expertise has been related to the constructive, the individuals they care about of their life, their mother and father, their siblings. You recognize, it’s obtained lots of constructive stuff related to it. And I don’t suppose there’s one account.”

I ask Rozin about why so many individuals report feeling so good after consuming peppers, and his response mirrors the dearth of analysis I’ve discovered on the subject. “I don’t consider anybody has measured,” he says. “You’ll find endor- phin rushes in people. You may look that up. So it’s attainable that’s what’s taking place … ” His voice trails off, then he briefly mentions makes an attempt to check the endorphin rush of a runner’s excessive earlier than coming again to peppers. So, what do individuals get from consuming scorching peppers? “You recognize, we don’t know. It’s simply an space of wonderful ignorance.”


“I tasted a pepper at roughly 3:30 this morning.” Ed Currie stands behind the counter at his retail retailer for his pepper empire, Puckerbutt Farms, in Fort Mill, South Carolina. Sure, I mentioned Puckerbutt. Currie eats ultra-hot peppers each day, he tells me. All day. He even places pepper tincture in his espresso. It’s peak season for the farm, and it’s a race to reap all of the peppers and fill the orders as they arrive pouring in, which is why he’s been awake since bartenders have been mopping the flooring with all of the lights turned up. I can’t think about what it will be like to wash my mouth in capsaicin very first thing within the morning. “It’s exhilarating,” Currie tells me. “The very first one I see that appears prefer it’s going to harm, and I eat only a chunk. However that’s sufficient to knock you out.” The imply ones, they’re further bumpy and crenulated, and Currie, a world-class pepper breeder, is aware of all of them too effectively. And the way does he really feel afterward? “Oh, I’m an addict in restoration, so I really feel fairly good.”

It’s no coincidence that Currie, the inventor of the world’s hottest pepper, is an addict.

“I get a rush. It makes me really feel good. It provides me vitality.” Currie is charming and straightforward to speak to, brimming with the sly, fidgety mind of a really intelligent rabbit, and his eyes twinkle when he talks about his peppers. “So yeah, I’m on the lookout for all these various things.”

“I used to be on the lookout for a approach to not die.”

Ed Currie, founder and proprietor of Puckerbutt Farms

We transfer to the again workplace of the shop as his employees bustle about. I’m flushed as a result of, previous to the interview, I sampled about six of the most popular scorching sauces on supply, together with one which was 94 p.c Carolina Reaper pepper. It was so thick that you just needed to dig it out of the bottle with just a little plastic spoon. The pungent flames of a thimble stuffed with Reaper paste take me again to the car parking zone of the pepper competition, and the warmth right here, although formidable and making me cry, is nothing like the warmth was there. I’ve a brand new baseline threshold for pepper ache, endlessly skewed by my dalliance with the Reaper.

Currie tells me that he was an addict by the point he was a teen. When he obtained to school, he found scorching peppers. “I used to be on the lookout for a approach to not die,” he says, additionally mentioning the antioxidant properties of peppers and their potential potential to assist stave off coronary heart illness and most cancers. It was solely later, after reaching the depths of dependancy and clawing his approach again out, that Currie started making scorching sauce. The truth is, he wooed his would-be spouse with a jar of peach salsa. Later, it was she who inspired him to start promoting his sauces, and it was the women at church who got here up with the outline of his wares that might turn out to be his firm identify: Puckerbutt.

Currie says what I’ve heard many individuals say: capsaicin “releases an enormous quantity of endorphins and dopamine into your system. It provides individuals essen- tially a runner’s excessive.” Although science is regrettably behind in confirming this, I feel it’s truthful to say that, as a result of ache causes an endorphin response, and scorching peppers trigger ache, by the transitive precept, consuming scorching peppers in all probability causes an endorphin rush. It was actually my expertise of them. However as of the writing of this e-book, we’re nonetheless not solely positive. Scientists, I eagerly await your analysis!

“If you eat superhot peppers, it truly makes you’re feeling good,” he tells me. “It will get you excessive. Like me, I’m a recovering addict. I get excessive off of peppers, I’ll admit it. Generally I take too many peppers,” he laughs. “You recognize, I’ve needed to discuss to my sponsor about it. However it’s not one thing that’s gonna hurt me. There’s nothing in a pepper that may hurt you. You may’t burn a gap in something. You can not harm, you already know, something past restore. It’s a sensation.”

It’s not like Currie is resistant to the painful results of his beloved peppers. He undoubtedly nonetheless will get the capsaicin cramps. “There’s no approach round that,” he says. “That’s one of many physiological reactions that occurs to everybody, it doesn’t matter what your tolerance is. Cramps, sweating, runny nostril, crying, out of breath, spit.” He tells me his face is on hearth after dealing with superhots all morning, that he’s simply sitting there burning. Then he tells me that for him, the peppers are an extension of his religion.

Currie is a religious Christian and reveals a deep and earnest gratitude when speaking about his religion, in a approach that feels welcoming and entire, not like so a lot of my private experiences with faith within the American South. He appears stuffed with reverence for his life, his peppers, his religion, his firm, his household. He proudly brags on his employees, a lot of whom have keys to his home. It’s a household affair right here, he tells me, blood-related or in any other case. He additionally giggles like just a little boy when speaking in regards to the emails individuals ship him describing the ache he’s precipitated them.

I ask him if he likes understanding that persons are on the market hurting due to his peppers, and he smiles large. “Oh yeah, it makes me snicker on a regular basis.” Currie grins at me, delighted. I ponder quietly to myself if this makes Currie a benign sadist.

Later, after a winding dialog about scorching pepper breeding and thrill seekers and physiological responses to the fruits of his labor, I ask Currie what he thinks about individuals utilizing the physique’s ache response and endorphin system to really feel good. Pondering for a second, he tells me, “I don’t perceive the individuals who pierce their our bodies and hold, okay? Simply don’t perceive it. Not saying it’s mistaken, not saying it’s unhealthy. I don’t perceive it. I’ve no wish to do it. However I’m fairly positive they’re getting the identical excessive I’m.”



https://www.popsci.com/science/why-do-people-like-spicy-food/ | The psychology behind liking spicy meals and ache

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