Tagneuroscience

Review: Hurts So Good: The Science and Culture of Pain on Purpose, by Leigh Cowart

In academic circles, we have a half-joking-but-not-really saying: “All Research Is Me-Search,” and Leigh Cowart’s new book has taken that dictum to titanic new heights and visceral, evocative depths.

Cowart is a former ballet dancer, a biologist who researched Pteronotus bats in the sweltering jungles of Costa Rica, and a self-described “high-sensation-seeking masochist.” They wrote this book to explore why they were like this, and whether their reasons matched up with those of so many other people who engage is painful activities of their own volition, whether for the pain itself, or the reward afterward. Full disclosure: Leigh is also my friend, but even if they weren’t, this book would have fascinated and engrossed me.

Hurts So Good is science journalism from a scientist-who-is-also-a-journalist, which means that the text is very careful in who and what it sources, citing its references, and indexing terms to be easily found and cross-referenced, while also bringing that data into clear, accessible focus. In that way, it has something for specialists and non-specialists, alike. But this book is also a memoir, and an interior exploration of one person’s relationship to pain, pleasure, and— not to sound too lofty about it— the whole human race.

The extraordinarily personal grounding of Hurts So Good is what allows this text to be more than merely exploitative voyeurism— though as the text describes, exploitative voyeurism might not necessarily be a deal-breaker for many of its subjects; just so long as they had control over when and how it proceeds and ends. And that is something Cowart makes sure to return to, again and again and again, turning it around to examine its nuances and infinitely fuzzy fractaled edges: The difference between pain that we instigate, pain that we can control, pain we know will end, pain that will have a reward, pain we can stop when and how we want… And pain that is enforced on us.

Cowart writes again and again that if BDSM is not consensual then it is abuse, that the forms of training done in ballet have a direct effect on disordered eating and body image issues, and that the kinds of pain which are not in our control can contribute to lasting trauma. And they also discuss how healing it can be to take back the control of pain in consensual BDSM, or the story of a ballet dancer who found themselves drawn to mixed martial arts as a way to process what was done to them in the ballet studio, and how using therapy to recognize and grapple with what has been done to us can sometimes allow us to differently understand what we want for ourselves.

There are no firm answers, in Cowart’s book. There are multiple perspectives, from neuroscientists, to the aforementioned ballerinas-turned-MMA-fighters, to ultra-marathoners, to people who compete to eat the hottest chilies in the world, to people who pierce the skin of their backs to hang suspended from hooks and bars, in public, to polar bear plungers, and more. There are overlapping feelings and descriptions in all of these people who seek to experience pain on purpose, but there is also a stunning multiplicity of backgrounds, of beliefs, of reasons to seek these avenues out, each one helping the reader to understand something more about both individual psychology and whole cultures’ relationships to pain.

Hurts So Good

[Cover image for Hurts So Good, featuring various hot peppers, handcuffs, a  sword, a whip, a snake, a hook on the end of a rope, and pointe shoes, all arranged around the words “Leigh Cowart— Hurts So Good— The Science & Culture of Pain on Purpose]

As someone who studies, among other things, the intersections of religious belief, ritual, and social life, I was absolutely fascinated by Cowart’s discussion of the role of ritual in how we experience pain and pleasure, both in the context of the preparations for dance or other sport or how competitors psych themselves up before a chili eating match or the constant call-and-response and check-in and aftercare process of a BDSM scene, but also in terms of literal religious ceremonies. Cowart discusses the flagellants of the Black Plague era, and mystics who fasted and meditated to achieve oneness with the Divine (a practice that also had clear gender-political valences, which Cowart also gets into). So one thing I’d’ve loved more of from Cowart is what other religious groups they found also use pain in a spiritual context. I know of a few, myself, including schools of Zen Buddhism, and would have loved to have them alongside Cowart’s examples, as well.

Similarly, I greatly appreciated Cowarat’s exploration of the link between the psychological, emotional, and the physical, in categorizing and inscribing pain in the bodymind. I know firsthand that graduate school and academic research is often about enduring the emotional and psychological kinds of pain, for the sake of something more coming out of it, as well as for what we believe we can achieve in that moment, and so I would have loved even a bit more in psychological and emotional veins, too.

But, of course, when writing a book, we have the time we have, and the time that Leigh Cowart took to research and write their book was well worth it.

Hurts So Good: The Science and Culture of Pain on Purpose is an illuminating, joyous, deeply emotional examination of what makes pain what it is, what makes pain mean what means, and why. And what could be more fitting for one of the most intimate, personal, and universal experiences of the human species.

Hurts So Good is out now from Public Affairs and Hachette, and if you want more from Leigh, you can check out their appearance on NPr’s The 1a.

The Book of Good Practices Now in Print

The Book of Good Practices

The Book of Good Practices by Bill Whitcomb and Taylor Ellwood is now available in print. Here’s a bit from the interview with Bill and Taylor that Chris Dancy and I did for Mindful Cyborgs last year:

KF: I kind of see this book as a users’ guide to the human brain. The brain, the missing manual; that sort of thing. What is the book, in your own words? Maybe we’ll start with Taylor then Bill can chime in.

TE: First of all, I want to acknowledge that Bill is kind of the originator of the book. He had already been working on it for a while and I want to give a little history here, just because I think it speaks to what the book’s about. He came to me about four or five years ago and said, “I’m working on this book. I’m kind of hitting a place where I’m feeling really blocked. Would you be willing to help me co-write it because you’ve done some similar stuff with some of your other writing?” I thought it over and I said, “Yeah, sure.”

It’s been a long road to get this book put together. I mean, it’s turned into three e-books and a workbook which speaks to it. So what do we see it as? I think I see it as a catalog of certainly stuff related to the brain but really behaviors and actions that can come out of being more aware of the brain and how it programs a lot of our behavior. That’s my take on it. Bill, what would you say to that?

BW: Well, I think we’ve tried to produce a taxonomy, a way of categorizing behavioral practices, things that can be described in purely behavioral terms; that actually have a measurable neurological effect on people, physiological effect on people. Things that you can learn to do that could be said to truly impact your skills as far as fundamental human activities; things like concentration, memory, metabolism; things that impact pretty much anything you would want to do in your life.

We’ve tried to abstract that as much as possible from any specific tradition because in many ways, the traditions these things come out of have a tendency to separate out people as much as they bring them in. Someone will say, “Well, psychology is too cold or inhuman for me” or “I don’t do Eastern mysticism” or “That’s too fuzzy and spiritual”, any reason to not try the thing themselves, whereas in behavioral terms, these are things that you can learn to do that will change your level of skill as a human being.

Gut–brain link could shed light on mental health

Nature reports:

Companies selling ‘probiotic’ foods have long claimed that cultivating the right gut bacteria can benefit mental well-being, but neuroscientists have generally been sceptical. Now there is hard evidence linking conditions such as autism and depression to the gut’s microbial residents, known as the microbiome. And neuroscientists are taking notice — not just of the clinical implications but also of what the link could mean for experimental design. […]

The evidence that probiotics affect human behaviour “is minimal to say the least”, Mazmanian acknowledges. Still, he says, a growing number of researchers are starting to look at some mental illnesses through a microbial lens.

Full Story: Nature: Gut–brain link grabs neuroscientists

Previously:

Networks, Bacteria, and the Illusion of Control

Can Bacteria Make You Smarter?

Humans Are Really Just Biomechanical Suit-Cities For Bacteria

Neurosexism: Brains, Gender and Tech

Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett, authors of The New Soft War on Women, once again debunk the idea that there are important neurological differences between men and women:

Baron-Cohen based his ideas on a study done in his laboratory of day-old infants, male and female. He claimed that boy babies looked at mobiles longer, while girl babies looked at faces longer. Based on this study, Parents magazine informed its readers, “Girls prefer dolls [to blocks and toys] because girls pay more attention to people while boys are more enthralled with mechanical objects.”

But Baron-Cohen’s study had major problems. It was an “outlier” study. No one else has replicated these findings, including Baron-Cohen himself. It is so flawed as to be almost meaningless.

Full Story: Re/code: Neurosexism: Brains, Gender and Tech

Atheletes may have trained their brains to create “time warps”

Shower head

BBC reports:

It started as a headache, but soon became much stranger. Simon Baker entered the bathroom to see if a warm shower could ease his pain. “I looked up at the shower head, and it was as if the water droplets had stopped in mid-air”, he says. “They came into hard focus rapidly, over the course of a few seconds”. Where you’d normally perceive the streams as more of a blur of movement, he could see each one hanging in front of him, distorted by the pressure of the air rushing past. The effect, he recalls, was very similar to the way the bullets travelled in the Matrix movies. “It was like a high-speed film, slowed down.” […]

What’s more, Valtteri Arstila at University of Turku, Finland, points out that many of these subjects also report abnormally quick thinking. As one pilot, who’d faced a plane crash in the Vietnam War, put it: “when the nose-wheel strut collapsed I vividly recalled, in a matter of about three seconds, over a dozen actions necessary to successful recovery of flight attitude”. Reviewing the case studies and available scientific research on the matter, Arstila concludes that an automatic mechanism, triggered by stress hormones, might speed up the brain’s internal processing to help it handle the life or death situation. “Our thoughts and initiation of movements become faster – but because we are working faster, the external world appears to slow down,” he says. It is even possible that some athletes have deliberately trained themselves to create a time warp on demand: surfers, for instance, can often adjust their angle in the split second it takes to launch off steep waves, as the water rises overhead.

Full Story: BBC: The man who saw time stand still

(Thanks Bill!)

What exactly goes on in the brain of a writer?

The New York Times reports on fMRI studies on what exactly goes on in the brain while people write. The first version of the study was conducted with amateur writers. The second was conducted with experienced creative writers. The researchers found that there were differences between the brain regions used while brainstorming and actually writing, and between the amateurs and professionals. But not everyone is impressed with the research:

Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist, was skeptical that the experiments could provide a clear picture of creativity. “It’s a messy comparison,” he said.

Dr. Pinker pointed out that the activity that Dr. Lotze saw during creative writing could be common to writing in general — or perhaps to any kind of thinking that requires more focus than copying. A better comparison would have been between writing a fictional story and writing an essay about some factual information.

Full Story: New York Times: This Is Your Brain on Writing

The Strange World of DIY Brain Zapping

DIY transcranial direct current stimulation

Wired reports on DIY transcranial direct current stimulation, and why the science behind it might not be all it’s cracked up to be:

It’s a rare thing for a scientist to stand up in front of a roomful of his peers and rip apart a study from his own lab. But that’s exactly what Vincent Walsh did in September at a symposium on brain stimulation at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain. Walsh is a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London, and his lab has done some of the studies that first made a splash in the media. One, published in Current Biology in 2010, found that brain stimulation enhanced people’s ability to learn a new number system based on made-up symbols.

Only it didn’t really.

“It doesn’t show what we said it shows; it doesn’t show what people think it shows,” Walsh said before launching into a dissection of his paper’s flaws. They ranged from the technical (guesswork about whether parts of the brain are being excited or inhibited) to the practical (a modest effect with questionable impact on any actual learning outside the lab). When he finished this devastating critique, he tore into two more studies from other high-profile labs. And the problems aren’t limited to these few papers, Walsh said, they’re endemic in this whole subfield of neuroscience.

Full Story: Wired: Inside the Strange New World of DIY Brain Stimulation

See Also:

Doctors Worry About DIY Brain Shocks

The Next God Helmet? Zap Your Brain for Insight

Is neuro-skepticism in danger of going too far?

Neuroskeptic points to a recent meta-study of neuroimaging critiques conducted by Martha Farah at the University of Pennsylvania. The blog highlights Farah’s conclusion:

Inferences based on functional brain imaging, whether for basic science or applications, require scrutiny. As we apply such scrutiny, it is important to distinguish between specific criticisms of particular applications or specific studies and wholesale criticisms of the entire enterprise of functional neuroimaging.

In the first category are criticisms aimed at improving the ways in which imaging experiments are designed and the ways in which their results are interpreted. Uncontrolled multiple comparisons, circular analyses and unconstrained reverse inferences are serious problems that undermine the inferences made from brain imaging data. Although the majority of research is not compromised by any of these errors, a substantial minority of published research is, making such criticisms both valid and useful.

In contrast, the more sweeping criticisms of functional imaging concern the method itself and therefore cast doubt on the conclusions of any research carried out with imaging, no matter how well designed and carefully executed. These more wholesale criticisms invoke the hemodynamic nature of the signal being measured, the association of neuroimaging with modular theories of the mind, the statistical nature of brain images, and the color schemes used to make those images seductively alluring.

As mentioned earlier, each of these criticisms contains an element of truth, but overextends that element to mistakenly cast doubt on the validity or utility of functional neuroimaging research as a whole. None of the criticisms reviewed here constitute reasons to reject or even drastically curtail the use of neuroimaging.

Full Story: Neuroskeptic: Brain Scans: Don’t Throw Out The Baby With The Dead Salmon

The full paper is here.

(via Boing Boing)

Sleep is the answer for nearly every ailment

Time reports:

Researchers have known for some time that sleep is critical for weight maintenance and hormone balance. And too little sleep is linked to everything from diabetes to heart disease to depression. Recently, the research on sleep has been overwhelming, with mounting evidence that it plays a role in nearly every aspect of health. Beyond chronic illnesses, a child’s behavioral problems at school could be rooted in mild sleep apnea. And studies have shown children with ADHD are more likely to get insufficient sleep. A recent study published in the journal SLEEP found a link between older men with poor sleep quality and cognitive decline. Another study out this week shows sleep is essential in early childhood for development, learning, and the formation and retention of memories. Dr. Allan Rechtschaffen, a pioneer of sleep research at the University of Chicago, once said, “If sleep does not serve an absolutely vital function, then it is the biggest mistake the evolutionary process ever made.”

Full Story: Time: It’s Time to Pay Attention to Sleep, the New Health Frontier

(via Alex Holmes)

DARPA wants to fit soldiers with a little black box brain implant

brain-implants

Geek.com reports:

Black box recorders are a common feature in aircraft. They sit there keeping track of everything that is happening. Then, if something goes wrong the information can be reviewed to piece together exactly what happened and form a view of the events that may otherwise have been lost.

Now the Pentagon is attempting to develop a similar system for use in humans, and in particular soldiers who have suffered brain damage. If they could be fitted with a black box in their brain, then it may be possible to trigger memories surrounding a traumatic event and overcome memory loss quickly and easily. […]

It’s common to see memory loss in someone suffering brain damage, but they can also forget their personal details and skills, such as remembering their own name, who their family is, and even how to drive. As well as stimulating the brain to recover recent memories, it is hoped the implant would be able to recall common information and therefore help them remember who they are.

Full Story: Geek.com: Pentagon wants to fit soldiers with a little black box brain implant

(Thanks Skry)

See Also:

Fully Wireless Brain Implants Are Closer Than You Think

DARPA Temporary Tattoos Want a Tattoo That Tracks Troops’ Vitals

Researchers Call for the Creation of Supersoldiers

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