Hurts So Good

Title: Hurts So Good

Author: Leigh Cowart

Completed: Dec 2021

Overview: I picked this up after hearing about the discussion of ultra running and pain. I’ve never really thought of myself as a masochist but admit a lot of that has to do with the negative and exclusively sexual understanding that title has in our culture. This book looks at aspects of sexual masochism which has never had appeal to me but also many other aspects of pain on purpose and pain for enjoyment such as polar bear plunges, hot pepper eating, and even nail biting which are all things that I do. It made me reconsider how I view pain. A friend pointed out that this was my second book this year about pushing your physical limits and how we experience pain. Clearly a topic that I will keep thinking about.


  • Today, when I use the word masochist, I am describing something universal, timeless, human: the deliberate act of choosing to feel bad to then feel better. To feel pain on purpose. People have long used this tactic, consenting to suffer so that they can enjoy the deliberately engineered biochemical relief that follows painful stimuli. It’s not weird. And it’s not rare.
  • “Do they feel like there is something they can respond to it effectively with?” It would be hard to overstate the importance of that last sentence. When a person is in pain, whether or not they feel like they can do anything about it has an enormous effect on how their brain creates the painful experiences.
  • the masochistic and nonmasochistic brains process pain stimuli very similarly, and the apparent differences seem related to prior experience and familiarity with pain. That is, from the vantage of the fMRI machine, a lot of the basic processing looks the same. It’s just that there seems to be an additional activation in the brains of the masochists. And that activation could have to do with having a desire for pain that comes with being familiar with suffering for fun. Bit of a chicken/egg—that a masochist brain might light up more because it’s more familiar with the material—but it’s an interesting finding to build on, nonetheless. Something different is happening; we’re just not sure why.
  • Our eyeballs jiggle constantly as a way to keep refreshing the image we see so that we can keep seeing it. Frogs, on the other hand, do not have jiggly eyes and therefore can only see motion. To test this yourself, you can gently hold your eyeball still with your fingers (through your lids, please!). If you are able to get a good, soft grip on your eye, cover the other eye, hold your head still, and the picture in front of your eyes will fade away because there is no new input. This is an excellent party trick that will have a group of adults looking like complete weirdos in no time.
  • The researchers found that the people who wrote about their guilty memory held their hands in the ice water longer, rated the ice water as more painful than the others did, and afterward experienced a significant reduction in guilt.
  • ancient Roman festival in celebration of fertility and its mascot, Pan, Lupercalia was filled with nudity and lashings. Naked men roamed the streets with floggers, whipping the hands and bellies of women—some of whom were pregnant!—so that these women might find themselves more fertile or more capable of an easy delivery. Also, for those playing along at home, you should know that Pope Gelasius replaced Lupercalia in the fifth century with a Christian festival to celebrate a venerated martyr. That martyr, once canonized, became Saint Valentine.
  • Mint works similarly, faking the sensation of cold. However, mint and hot peppers act on different receptors. An Altoid and habanero will not cancel each other out; if you eat them at the same time, you will have created inside your mouth an edible Icy Hot arthritis cream.
  • The medieval Arab world dedicated very advanced wards to housing and caring for people with mental illnesses and composed impressive documents classifying numerous known conditions. However, at the same time, Europe was plagued with Catholic superstitions and a tragic lack of useful science. Many people suffering from mental illnesses were condemned to imprisonment, torture, and death for being possessed or having satanic affiliations.
  • There is no clear demarcation between pain on purpose that is harmful and pain on purpose that isn’t.
  • The actions and emotions involved in deliberate pain are not classifiable into a binary “good” or “bad” category, and you cannot necessarily tell which is which just by watching. One person’s meticulously considered and enjoyed human pincushion act is another person’s public engagement in despair-fueled self-harm, and who could tell the difference from the audience’s vantage?
  • “People tend to synchronize with each other during ordinary activities, such as breathing, walking, and cycling,” the researchers wrote in their paper, “Being on the Same Wavelength: Behavioral Synchrony Between Partners and Its Influence on the Experience of Intimacy.” “Past research has indicated that such simple motor synchrony may inspire a sense of unity even between previously unacquainted interactional partners and have vast social consequences, such as heightened feelings of connectedness as well as increased cooperation and compassion.” That is, simply moving your body in sync with another person, stranger or not, makes you feel closer to them.
  • constructed a study to test whether exercising as a group causes increased pain tolerance. The Oxford research team found that when the rowers worked out together in a synchrony, they had a bigger endorphin surge than when they worked out alone.
  • We walk all the way back to the hotel on numb feet, hungry and freezing and high as kites. It was surely one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done, but now, and always, it will be a stupid thing that we did together. Humans love that.
  • Participation in ultramarathons has increased over 1,000 percent in the last decade. Steve Diederich, who helms the Run Ultra website and exhaustively catalogs participation in the sport, told The Guardian that in 2006 there were 160 ultramarathon races around the world. In 2018, there were over 1,800 races listed on the site. In an April 2018 article about the sport, Adharanand Finn also cites statistics from UltraRunning magazine: in 2003, around 18,000 people finished an ultramarathon in North America. By 2016, that number had ballooned to 105,000.