"It's a rush."
"I like the tingling sensations."
"I feel like I'm missing out if I don't have it."
"I like pushing the boundaries to find the perfect level."
"It makes things taste better."
"I don't know, it's just kind of addictive."
These are all attempts by (reasonably) sober, sensible, and otherwise un-self harming individuals to justify their pain-inflicting culinary habits.
Chili and wasabi—as well as menthol, fizzy drinks, and hot and cold beverages—contain molecular compounds that stimulate the pain receptors in our nerve cells, invoking a simulation of what would happen if someone actually lit a flame in your mouth. In chilies, the molecule capsaicin creates a hot burn, turning your mouth into a blazing inferno. Isothiocyanate molecules in wasabi, mustard, and menthol cause a cold burn, searing up your nostrils and making you feel like your head will explode, or as one Reddit reader put it, "It's like my scalp is being pulled back and the inside of my nose is being stuffed with chopsticks."
Plants developed these molecules in a tactical evolutionary move to deter animals and humans from eating them. But we as humans conditioned ourselves into liking the very sensations that were engineered to repel us. Hell, we aren't at the top of the food chain for nothing. According to Paul Bloom, Yale psychologist and author of How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like, "Philosophers have often looked for the defining feature of humans: language, rationality, culture, and so on. I'd stick with this: Man is the only animal that likes Tabasco sauce."
This bizarre practice is not just for culinary outliers either. For hundreds of years (thousands in the Americas), people have been voluntarily subjecting themselves to this veritable form of torture, smearing wasabi over sushi, blending Scotch Bonnets into jerk seasoning, loading tom yum soup with bird's eye chilies, piling kimchi onto bibimbap, mixing cayenne into Shrimp Creole, sambal oelek onto gado gado, berbere into beef stews, chili flakes into spaghetti all'arrabbiata, and even dousing fruit salads with chili sauce and powder.
But why would we intentionally go after these numb, inflamed sweaty experiences? We love fiery ordeals where our oral cavities turn into raging furnaces, tongues and throats scalded and raw, lips throbbing, heads pounding, hearts racing, and noses and eyes streaming as our brain tries to extinguish the blistering heat.
If it provided some kind of evolutionary advantage—which it doesn't—it would make more sense. One common claim by sensory thrill seekers is that adding heat to dishes 'enhances the taste' of it, which has some merit. Taste incorporates flavor (sweet, salty, sour, bitter, umami) but adds in other sensations such as mouthfeel, smell, aesthetics, and memories. By elevating sensation, you feel like you're elevating taste: the same reason food manufacturers will spend big to find the optimum level of crunch in a potato chip or the fizz in a soda.
Even scientists have found it hard to nail down why we would defy the rules of evolution and common sense for these brief moments of depraved hedonism, but it turns out that we are physiologically and psychologically predisposed to sadomasochistic dining tendencies.
It Gets You High
When our brain registers the messages of burning and pain, it responds by releasing its natural painkillers, endorphins. Essentially, the body's natural morphine, endorphins stimulate the same receptors in the brain as opiates. The endorphins act as an analgesic and sedative, diminishing our perception of pain, making us feel exhilarated and euphoric.
"The endorphins work to block the heat. The body produces them in response to the heat which it senses as pain," said Paul Bosland, co-founder and director of New Mexico State University's Chile Pepper Institute.
There Are Shades of Grey Between Pleasure and Pain It had long been assumed pain and pleasure were opposing sensations delivered by distinct pathways in the nervous system. However, recent studies suggest they have much in common and they exist in more of a pain-pleasure continuum."In several brain structures, neurons responding to pain and pleasure lie close together, forming gradients from positive to negative," explains John McQuaid, author of Tasty: The Art and Science of What We Eat.
The painful sensations caused by chili peppers and wasabi result in the release of extra 'pleasure chemical' dopamine in the brain as well as the stimulation of 'hedonic hot spots'. Basically acting as the brain's G-spots, these areas determine pleasure, motivation, and desire, and are heavily involved in addiction. Traditionally associated only with blissful stimulants like eating chocolate cake, kissing, heroin, Facebook, (winning at) gambling, music, art, and altruism, it's now been established that pain can been added to this list, and that the link between pleasure and pain in our bodies is a complex and mysterious one.
You Enjoy Benign Masochism
We humans are masters of sensation alchemy. We have worked out how to turn an unpleasant experience into something pleasurable and exciting. Eating chili peppers is not the only activity in this class. Cultural psychologist, Dr. Rozin, suggests that there's a thrill in finding pleasure in pain or stress.
In the Journal of Motivation and Emotion, he writes, "People come to like the fear and arousal produced by [things like] roller-coasters, parachute jumping, or horror movies. They enjoy crying at sad movies, and some come to enjoy the initial pain of stepping into a very hot bath or the shock of jumping into freezing water."
He calls these activities "benign masochism" because it's painful with no grave threat.
If all this sounds like a good time but you struggle with the side effects of sins of the flesh, paste, powder, and sauce, you can train yourself to enjoy them. The chemical effects of eating chili and wasabi are the same between people, but the difference is the result of exposure and conditioning. Start small, climbing the Scoville scale one piece of cayenne-sprinkled avocado toast or wasabi-dotted sushi at a time. Next thing you know, you'll be snacking on a Trinidad Moruga Scorpion whilst having sex on a rollercoaster and getting your hair pulled before going home to have dabs of wasabi powder while you watch horror movies in a scalding bath.
This first appeared on MUNCHIES in June 2015.