Updating The Old Pain/Pleasure Principle

Back in the early 20th C Freud finessed the pain/pleasure principle [our instinct to flee pain and seek pleasure]. This principle has been used by everyone from shamans to movie directors, from reality shows to politicians, from traveling circuses to shopping malls, and from novelists to neurobiologists.

While most of us understand the pleasure side, the University of Chicago right here in my town has just added a whole new item to the pain side: Math!

Well, gee, I knew that. Even without the research. No, but neurobiologist professor Sian Beilock is being more precise. His research tells him the brain actually registers physiological pain from math anxiety. “That region, the dorso-posterior insula, is part of the evolutionarily ancient pain system which registers the hurt we feel when for instance our hands are burned….Likewise the same region registers intense emotional anguish when we face a math test….But surprisingly, not while we are taking the test, only while we are anticipating the test.”

Before either Beilock or Freud, Shakespeare put the principle this way: “A coward dies a thousand deaths, a hero only one.” Long before brain scans, this Englishman’s brain understood this principle in its deepest implications. I admire my doctors, but hope when they scan me to diagnose me, they’ve read a little Shakespeare.

In a related pain/pleasure study, Japanese psychology professor Norhiro Sadato reports: “To the brain, receiving a compliment is as much a social reward as being awarded money.”

I guess I suspected that too. But long before Sadato or I, that same Shakespeare wrote of the joy of being appreciated this way: “My bounty is as broad as the seas, my love as deep, the more I give to thee, the more I have.” I’m not sure my MRI will show that, but I’m hoping my doctors will remember that when I’m looking for their assurance just before surgery.

A salute then…! To all those who not only know the pain/pleasure principle, but who understand how to best implement it. How best to bring our hearts as well as our heads to the task at hand…..

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