Thursday, March 13, 2014

Pain increases happiness... or why watching other people suffer can be more painful than suffering yourself

Why do people voluntarily engage in pain? We conducted a study a few years ago and the articles and a media release by our university are just out this.

We were interested in individuals who participate in objectively painful religious rituals. Western theories and observers would argue that people engaging in these activities risk infection, experience negative emotions and should feel less happy after the ritual, compared to others who do not engage in these behaviours. There is quite a bit of research in medical areas that talk about the negative effects of large scale religious events, especially if they involve painful activities (just think of jumping into ice cold water, walking over burning hot coals, piercing yourself with unsterilised metal rods, etc.).

We studied a festival on the small island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, just off the coast of Africa. The festival involves 10 days of fasting and prayers, and culminates in a long procession and fire-walking ritual. What was particularly interesting for us was to study the effects that active participation in the firewalk as the focal element of the ritual had on people, compared to others who participated, but did not do the firewalk or merely watched from the sidelines.

We invited fire-walkers (‘high-ordeal’ participants); people participating in the ritual without engaging in the high-intensity activities (‘low-ordeal’ participants); and spectators to be part of our study. The fire-walkers and ‘low-ordeal’ participants were members of the same families. The support from the local temple and community was actually phenomenal. We had to turn people away, because we did not have enough resources to study everyone. Here, the hard work by Dimitris Xygalatas in setting up the field site and establishing the connections with the local community really paid off!

Participants walked barefoot in the midday sun without eating or drinking while carrying pots of sacrificial offerings. The fire-walkers were pierced with needles or skewers and finished the procession by walking over knives and burning coals.

Our design was super-ambitious though. We asked individuals a few questions before the whole festival started, measuring their initial states of happiness and fatigue and we also strapped them up with mobile heart rate monitors. This allowed us to track their physiological arousal during the festival. We then asked people again after the end of the ceremony.

To examine the effects of participation, we compared the levels of happiness, fatigue and heart rate of low- and high-ordeal participants, and found that fire-walkers had experienced the highest increase in heart rate and reported greater happiness and less fatigue post-ritual.

Even more interesting was the experience of ‘low-ordeal’ participants because of their relationship to the fire-walkers. Fire-walkers experienced the emotional ‘high’ upon finishing the ritual, whereas ‘low-ordeal’ participants did not, while simultaneously worrying about the well-being of their friends and family. These people, even though they did not physically experience the pain, felt more exhausted than the fire-walkers. Sometimes, perceiving other people suffer can be more exhausting than actually experiencing the pain yourself.

The Team of Investigators - after the ritual ordeal is over

In the paper, we provide some speculations about potential biological mechanisms, especially opioid systems and pain-offset mechanisms to guide future research. The study of voluntary pain is highly fascinating and there is so much that we don't yet understand (see also my earlier posts about extreme rituals in this blog).

For those interested, the paper can be found here (it is open access, so no fees) and the media release is here.

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