Tag Archives: Robert M. Sapolsky

It Hurts So Good

Come on, baby.  Make it hurt so good.
Sometimes problems don’t resolve as they should,
so you gotta make it hurt so good…


And not because the self-inflicted physical pain doesn’t hurt, but because when the physical pain stops, so does emotional pain.  Euphoria sets in like a runner’s high, an intense love-making, lust-maddening session, or a mind-altering substance.

Also known as “pain offset relief,” this phenomenon explains that when a person deliberately hurts themselves in such a way that the integrity of their skin is damaged (like bloodletting or burning), they still register that physical pain as something undesirable, but the moment that physical pain stops, they are filled with intense relief not only because the physical hurt has stopped, but emotional pain has as well.  What’s interesting is that studies done with people who do not deliberately self-injure as a means of coping indicate that they also feel very good after the physical pain has stopped.  Cornell reports the same: pain offset relief appears to be a near- universal phenomenon experienced by nearly all living creatures, not an abnormal psychological or biological feature that predisposes some people to self-injury… Once again, this work indicates that people who engage in self-injury are not “wired differently” to “like pain.” People who engage in self-injury simply tap into a natural and powerful relief mechanism that all people (and other organisms) have access to.

Moreover, according to Cornell, “researchers have discovered that there is a large degree of ‘neural overlap’ between physical pain and emotional pain (in particular, areas called the ‘anterior cingulate cortex’ and the ‘anterior insulsa’).”  Of course I had to turn to Robert M. Sapolsky’s book to see what it has on the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC).  The ACC’s function revolves around processing and recognizing sensory information about your body (is my heart beating really fast? why does my stomach feel weird?) and identifying anomolies in patterns and causality (behavior X yields Y but why not every time?).  Sapolsky notes that “unexpected pain is at the intersection of those two roles of the ACC” and it seriously wants to know what the pain signifies and what can be done to make the pain end (the placebo effect comes into play here) (528, 529).  The ACC’s role in recognizing and wanting to dispel emotional pain facilitates its role in empathy.

A person who is affected by seeing signs of pain in someone else has an activated ACC.  In fact, “the more painful the other person’s situation seems to be, the more ACC activation.  The ACC is also central in doing something to alleviate someone else’s distress” (530).  It also explains why some people can look at other people’s choices and avoid making the same choices if the outcomes are undesirable.  Now I’m wondering if I’ve got a hyperactive ACC because whenever my favorite people are in duress, I feel compelled to do something to help them feel better (or not do what they did to land themselves in whatever world of dismay).

But what does the purpose of the ACC, a highly engaged ACC, have to do with pain offset relief exactly?  My interpretation is that because this part of the frontal cortex has a duty to let you know when some aspect of your existing is amiss or inconsistent, it seeks to and is amenable to any course of action that will make things the way they’re supposed to be, which is homeostasis.  Things aren’t too hot or cold, they’re just right.  You’ve forgotten you have body parts because they don’t hurt.  You feel okay, steady because there’s no reaction to unpleasant stimuli (that would bring about physical or emotional distress or both).


On Plath and Sapolsky

At the beginning of this year I started reading Robert M. Sapolsky‘s book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (Penguin Books, 2017).  Roughly a month ago I picked up The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (Anchor Books, 2000). 


Both authors put the proverbial pen to paper in such different times — neurobiologist and primatologist Sapolsky’s book would necessarily have incorporated, referenced or been inspired by years’ worth of his own work as well as studies done by other scientists; poet and writer Plath‘s journal entries covered the 1950s and very early 60s. 

The Vietnam War may have been fresh on the scene for Plath’s America, but neither she nor Sapolsky had to contend with Covid-19.  Their own realities are 50+ years apart, and though her words were not meant for public consumption at the moment she wrote them and their expertise falls into different categories, their respective findings are equally applicable to the ins and outs of being a human being today.

Plath’s observations are her opinions and not results of science experiments, so my purpose in highlighting some of them is not to suggest they’re the key to unlocking any great mystery.  I am proposing that, like the published philosophers before, during, and after her lifetime, she has excavated some truths that can undermine the efforts of life-affirming thinkers and leaders who would rather not dwell on the pessimistic, morbid, or logically clinical.  Specifically, “…I don’t believe in God as a kind father in the sky. I don’t believe that the meek will inherit the earth: The meek get ignored and trampled. They decompose in the bloody soil of war, of business, of art, and they rot into the warm ground under the spring rains. It is the bold, the loud-mouthed, the cruel, the revolutionaries, the mighty in arms and will, who march over the soft patient flesh that lies beneath their cleated boots.” (44).

Sylvia Plath recounts all the dates she’s had with the men she met at parties or through friends.  Ever the introspective young woman in the 50s, she calls out inappropriate behavior from males while simultaneously apologizing (to herself or out loud) for disappointing.  I imagine there are people who would applaud then sigh at her actions. 

“Stand up for yourself, never apologize!”  

There are other people who would wonder in response, “Why can’t the man simply refrain from doing that which would cause Plath to reject his attention only to be sorry?”

(But ultimately she pushes him away).

Robert M. Sapolsky has dedicated his professional career studying and analyzing the neurobiology and evolutionary anthropology of the human species, and thus possesses a comprehension of the human animal that is less subjective than that of Sylvia Plath.  I took a break from Behave because, well, mid-March happened and I needed more fiction and less educational bits on the lows of real human behavior.  I resumed reading it a few days ago and found this passage that serves well as an elucidation for Plath’s grievances with her fellow human:

“Testosterone makes us more willing to do what it takes to attain and maintain status.  And the key point is what it takes.  Engineer social circumstances right, and boosting testosterone levels during a challenge would make people compete like crazy to do the most acts of random kindness.  In our world riddled with male violence, the problem isn’t that testosterone can increase levels of aggression.  The problem is the frequency with which we reward aggression.” (107).

Would it matter how genuine is the act of kindness?  In an effort to keep up with the trending Joneses, how many content creators document themselves giving away food, money, or other items to the homeless in their area?  Do they feel compelled to competitively increase the amount of items donated/given in quantity or dollar amount?  How many content creators stage these events (or worse, the ones where animals may or may not really be rescued)?  Is it a moot point to debate the importance of authentic altruism if the outcome is the same: some hungry people are no longer hungry and lots of fast(casual) food chains sold lots of food.

When I was taking AP Psych in high school and then a few sociology classes in college, there were discussions on why it is that some people are capable of following the rules (some blindly, others with subtle rebellion as needed) and other people struggle to adhere to rules (even when doing so is in their best interest)?  The concept of reward and punishment from a psychological perspective and its role in behavior modification didn’t provide satisfactory answers because what is effective on this sample size in this study or those two groups in that other study won’t necessarily apply to the general public outside of a lab.  Furthermore, the presence of a punishment and absence of a reward isn’t the same as the absence of punishment and the presence of a reward. 

What is a misanthrope’s incentive to follow any rule for the greater good or common courtesy or his own self-interest?  If he were playing well-trained/ill-trained cop roulette in a routine traffic stop, how disrespectful and domineering would he present himself to provoke the police officer to inflict any kind of force?  I’d ask the same of the cop.  If she were playing cool-citizen/freaking-out-citizien in a routine traffic stop, how disrespectful and domineering would she present herself to provoke the driver to do anything that would be construed as threatening (as opposed to just loud and obnoxious)?

Does the misanthrope’s agitated behavior get rewarded if he’s let go with a ticket?  Does the cop’s aggressive behavior get rewarded if she’s not even given desk duty after her superiors watch her body cam video? Or, does she get punished with desk duty because she let the misanthrope go with a ticket when another officer would’ve done whatever it took to facilitate the transpiring of events that would lead to an arrest?

I do wonder what Sylvia Plath would say about the current relationship status between law enforcement and ordinary citizens.  It needs improvement, that’s for sure, but what would she say?  She’d write a poem.

You may recall that Gwyneth Paltrow played her in the movie Sylvia (Christine Jeffs, 2003). 

Listen to Sylvia’s actual voice in this interview:

And, here is Robert M. Sapolsky’s Ted Talk about people’s capacity to do some pretty amazing and pretty atrocious things.


Pic creds: Penguin Books, Penguin Random House