Motivation and emotion/Book/2017/Pleasure and pain

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Pleasure and pain:
What is the relationship between pleasure and pain?

Overview[edit | edit source]

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Key Questions

At the completion of this chapter, you should be able to answer:

  1. How can pain and pleasure be defined?
  2. What is the biological and physiological basis for experiencing pain?
  3. What are the major psychological theories about the interaction of pain and pleasure?
  4. How does this relationship present itself in society?

The Basics[edit | edit source]

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What are pleasure and pain?[edit | edit source]

Both pain and pleasure are subjective experiences, being different for every individual and therefore difficult to succinctly define. A general understanding of what academic discourse accepts as definitions will be helpful in aiding complete understanding of how pain and pleasure interact. These definitions will also help with broadening your own intrinsic understanding of painful and pleasurable experiences.

Pain[edit | edit source]

The experience of pain is a complex phenomena, often falling into two umbrella categories; a physical sensation and a psychological sensation.

The International Association for the Study of Pain defines pain as an unpleasant sensory emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage. Physical pain can occur acutely (short term, instantaneous) or chronically (long term) and is often used as an indicator for underlying conditions affecting the body[factual?].

Pain is also an emotive phenomena and can be influenced by key psycho-social factors like personality, beliefs and social environment and can affect mental well-being[factual?].

Pleasure[edit | edit source]

Pleasure is a broad term applied to the experiencing of happiness, joy, euphoria and fulfillment. Like pain, pleasure is a subjective experience, and although similar experiences, actions or activities will cause pleasure in more than one person the way different individuals experience pleasure is different[factual?].

Biological Mechanisms of Pain[edit | edit source]

Diagram of Nociceptive Processes

Unlike pleasure, with the growing understanding and research into human physiology, pain has become more than just a subjective hedonistic feeling, with the biological mechanisms of pain being explored and of great academic concern beyond the realm of psychology.

Nociceptors[edit | edit source]

The biological breakdown of pain begins with messengers called nociceptors. Nociceptors are triggered by harmful (or potentially harmful) stimuli in places like the skin, gut, limbs, and other parts of the body. These nociceptive nerves are activated, by usually thermal, mechanical or chemical insult of a harmful intensity. (Navratilova and Porreca, 2014). Nociceptors are not strictly for transmitting noxious stimuli, but all stimuli that occurs.

Gate Control for Pain

Gate Control Theory[edit | edit source]

According to the gate control theory proposed by (Melzack and Wall, 1965), pain is not free to be felt as soon as we encounter a stimuli, but rather it has to travel through and be sorted through several gates within the nervous system and spinal cord, and these gates decide whether the pain should be felt by the brain, at what intensity it is felt and what type of pain is felt.

Gate Control for Pain firing nociceptive messages to the brain

It is then that the stimuli picked up by the nociceptors is carried to the spinal cord through large and small myelinated fibres. The axons of the A-Beta Fibres (short, sharp pain) branch out and communicate through to the thalamus. The C-Beta Fibres (throbbing, chronic pain) then enter the Dorsal Horn. Somewhere between these two locations, there is a gating mechanism that acts as a regulating system that control the nerve transmission to deeper in the spinal cord. (Aydede, 2000)

Psychological Theory[edit | edit source]

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Motivation-Decision Theory[edit | edit source]

The motivation-decision model was suggested by Fields (2006) and surrounds the role pain plays in conscious decision making. The model suggests that whatever drives decision processes is the dominant priority predicts to be in that case[awkward expression?]. That can be rudimentary as food, water, shelter, sexual gratification, or anything that the individual deems to be of highest consequence in that given situation. It is then applied to the concept of pain, and how pain is commonly associated within the human psyche as a tool for survival, and that the body uses the perception of pain as a way of identifying a threat and that it is in our very nature to avoid pain inducing situations. Fields suggests that, given the right circumstances, the individual can choose to ignore, endure, or suppress the pain, to achieve the obstacle ahead of them.

It can then be assumed that human beings have developed the evolutionary unconscious ability to endure, suppress and bypass pain to gain a reward they perceive to be more important, desirable, or necessary than the avoidance of the pain.


Our professional footballer scenario is particularly useful when considering this model application. Football is a high impact sport that asks players to consistently put their bodies on the line of brutality with the knowledge that they are likely to encounter injury. The football player knowingly accepts this fact of the game, and throughout the game suppresses or doesn't consciously acknowledge the bodily pain they feel because he knows that for a short period of pain and discomfort, the pleasure and reward of a win will cause more satisfaction and be of more use to him.

Opponent Process Theory[edit | edit source]

Richard Solomon, the founder of Opponent Process Theory in Psychological Processes

The opponent process theory (known as opponent colour theory) was first developed by Ewald Hering in the late 19th century (Hering, 1964). Initially it was constructed to explain the basis for colour vision. Hering proposed that there are three independent variables for colour vision, those being three pairs of processes (colours) with each having unique sensory qualities. Each member of said pairs would be in direct opposition of each other, being red-green, white-black, and yellow-blue. He proposed that the human eye could never perceive a combination of the pair (reddish-green, yellowish-blue, blackish-white). (Hurvich and Jameson, 1957)

It was in the late 20th century however that this theoretical framework was applied to psychological behaviour. Richard Solomon and John Corbit applied this theory experiencing human emotions, with the same concept of paired opposites (Solomon and Corbit, 1974). Solomon's application can be divided into two stages. The first being that once stimuli have been introduced, the individual will experience an affective or hedonic emotional response and said response will rise to a peak. This emotional response will maintain if the intensity of the stimuli is also maintained, but should the stimuli be terminated, the emotional response will then be replaced with the opposite emotion.  (Solomon and Corbit, 1974).


Let's try and apply this theory into a real-life pain and pleasure situation. A student has just completed their final exam for one of their classes and does not think they have done very well. She feels waves of emotions such as panic, guilt, sadness, and stress as well as feeling sick to her stomach and escalated heartbeat. These feeling persist until the next day when she receives her results. Her results show a good mark and she should pass her course with ease. Immediately following getting these results, the student is elated and feels extreme euphoria. She is in a good mood for the rest of the day until the emotions eventually fade.

The second stage of Solomon's application of Opponent Process Theory is the proposition that while for every emotional experience, there is a reactionary opposition emotional experience, continued exposure to the stimuli, will lessen said initial emotional response and the secondary reactionary emotion will increase. In short, the more you do something to gain a certain response the less that response will occur. Solomon and Corbit (1973) found this theory especially useful when applied to the experiences of drug and tobacco addiction. A drug addict seeks out using their chosen substance to gain a high and initially they will experience very little withdrawal symptoms, but the longer they use the substance, the high will become less and less over time (the pleasurable aspect of the addiction), they are forced to use larger amounts of the substance to reach the same level of high, and they will experience worse symptoms of withdrawals (the painful aspect of the addiction). (Solomon and Corbit, 1974)


Let's apply this theory to our professional footballer scenario. Every week, the professional footballer plays an incredibly gruelling match, and during that match they are hopped up on adrenaline, euphoria, and the uplifting throes of a win (pleasure), but once this euphoria subsides they are left with self-criticism, doubt and exhaustion (pain). The more games he plays, the less he will be enthralled by the win and more he will experience the physical tolls it takes on his body.

In Society and Popular Culture[edit | edit source]

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Pain in Sexual Practice[edit | edit source]

The collar is often used in sadomasochistic relations as a sign of submission and to aid in humiliation.

The relationship between pain and pleasure and the blurred lines between the perception of the two is no more evident and debated than the role it plays in the most intimate pleasure experienced by humans; sexual gratification.

Sadomasochism (colloquially known as "S and M") is the deliberate use of (both or either) physical and psychological pain to achieve sexual arousal and gratification. Sadomasochism traditionally places a large emphasis on short term physical pain and humiliation, [grammar?] these concepts manifesting into things such as impact play, cutting, name calling and derogatory language.


SADIST: In our sexual relations, I am dominant and enjoy giving physical impact, causing pain to my sexual partners while also using derogatory language.

MASOCHIST: I am submissive, and I find the experiencing of pain quite pleasurable and find it arousing. I enjoy being verbally dominated resulting in me feeling embarrassed and humiliated.

Sadomasochism is the combinative term for the terms "sadism" and "masochism". The former being the party that derives sexual pleasure from inflicting pain or humiliation, and the latter being the party that finds gratification from one's own pain and humiliation. The generalised concept of sexual intimacy widely accepted throughout society is loving, kind and a completely pleasurable experience, but with sadomasochistic practices exhibiting the complete opposite it is seen by many as "sick", "perverse" and "unnatural".  

It is the natural course for academics, general social citizens and those who practice sadomasochism themselves to ask for source of why they find such pleasure in experiencing pain, especially considering wider society's condemnation of the taboo.

Up until the latter half of the 20th century, sadomasochism was episodic, much like the way homosexuality was considered.

Sigmund Freud

To have these urges and need these stipulations to reach sexual arousal, the early academic literature on the subject indicated that perhaps early childhood trauma, past abuse (sexual, physical, and psychological) (Richters et al., 2008) and developmental problems may be indicators or causal factors for sadomasochistic desires. Freudian theory suggests that toddlerhood is an especially informative period in an individual's life, and that those who experience abuse during these years will show sadomasochistic tendencies that will manifest and grow throughout their lives, and then graduate to being necessary for sexual arousal. (Freud and Brill, 2011)

Although this proposal is very compelling and would provide a sound justification for said behaviours to exist, there is very little assured scientific evidence (Richters et al., 2008). Conceivably it is because of this assumption or misconception of damage and abuse [grammar?] is a reason as to why sadomasochism is so tabooed within society, and it is not necessarily the intersection of pain and pleasure.

Perhaps it is due to the fact that participation in sadomasochistic practices are so marginalised in their occurrence that the vast population finds it to be so abhorrent and unnatural. It was reported that only 1.8% of individuals have participated in said practices within the 12 months prior to the study.(Richters et al., 2008) The challenges and potentials of BDSM This point however is greatly debated and inconsistent throughout the literature with an earlier study conducted by Janus and Janus (1994) report that 14% of American men and 11% of women have and do engage in these practices, with [grammar?] also stating that the number is most likely to be much higher but is hindered by self-report limitations. (Greely, Janus and Janus, 1994)

There is [grammar?] also approximately 27 million web pages featuring sadomasochistic materials, which would infer that it is a very highly sought-after topic[factual?].

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

The concepts of pain and pleasure are not simplistic concepts, and neither is the relationship between them.

They are multi-faceted, multi-dimensional characteristics of the human experience both being physical, mental, emotional and social with each different type of pain or pleasure taking on their own meaning and being extremely subjective from individual to individual. Theories such as opponent process theory, the motivation decision model and the biological basis of pain each give an insight to how we as humans experience and perceive pain but they are not all inclusive answers, and there are still large gaps in our knowledge.

The biological aspects of pleasure are still majorly unknown to us, and as a result the literature surrounding it is limited; further understanding of said physiological aspects will not only improve the understanding of pleasure itself, but also how it interacts with pain and perhaps provide answers on the ever-living desire as humans to seek pleasure and happiness.

The taboo that surrounds the intersection of pain and pleasure is still widely misunderstood, with misconceptions being made about the prevalence and inclusions its placement in sexual gratification, further study of why society detests it so, and also what causes such desires will help ease the stigmatisation of practising individuals, as well as easing the discomfort of those who experience such urges.

Pain and pleasure drive human life, yet they are still so unknown to us.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Aydede, M. (2000). An Analysis of Pleasure Vis-a-Vis Pain. Philosophy And Phenomenological Research, 61(3), 537.

Barker, M., Iantaffi, A., & Gupta, C. (2007). Kinky clients, kinky counselling? The challenges and potentials of BDSM. Unknown, Unknown(Unknown). Retrieved from

Cope, E., & Sandys, J. (2010). Aristotle: Rhetoric. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Freud, S., & Brill, A. (2011). Three contributions to the theory of sex. Mansfield Centre, CT: Martino Publishing.

Greely, A., Janus, S., & Janus, C. (1994). The Janus Report on Sexual Behavior. Contemporary Sociology, 23(2), 221.

Grossmas, W. (1991). Pain, Aggression, Fantasy, and Concepts of Sadomasochism. Psychoanal, 60(22).

Hurvich, L., & Jameson, D. (1957). An opponent-process theory of color vision. Psychological Review, 64(6, Pt.1), 384-404.

Melzack, R., & Wall, P. (1965). Pain Mechanisms: A New Theory. Science, 150(3699), 971-978.

Navratilova, E., & Porreca, F. (2014). Reward and motivation in pain and pain relief. Nature Neuroscience, 17(10), 1304-1312.

Richters, J., De Visser, R., Rissel, C., Grulich, A., & Smith, A. (2008). Demographic and Psychosocial Features of Participants in Bondage and Discipline, “Sadomasochism” or Dominance and Submission (BDSM): Data from a National Survey. The Journal Of Sexual Medicine, 5(7), 1660-1668.

Solomon, R., & Corbit, J. (1973). An opponent-process theory of motivation: II. Cigarette addiction. Journal Of Abnormal Psychology, 81(2), 158-171.

Solomon, R., & Corbit, J. (1974). An opponent-process theory of motivation: I. Temporal dynamics of affect. Psychological Review, 81(2), 119-145.

External links[edit | edit source]

Video Clips
  • Pleasure and Pain (A documentary showcasing the relationship between pain and pleasure through experimenting with painful experiences)