There’s something strangely entertaining about human pain. Watch any episode of America’s Funniest Home Videos, and you’ll see a few clips of people falling down flights of stairs or taking footballs to the head. Turn on a David Blaine special, and you’ll see the magician sticking pins and needles into some part of his body (more on that in a moment).
And if we embed, say, a video of Travis Scott falling off the stage while autotuned, you’ll click below to watch it. It’s almost as though you don’t have a choice, isn’t it?
Pain is a universal experience, and that’s part of the reason it’s so engrossing. Pain tolerance, on the other hand, is anything but universal. We decided to look into the science of pain—and found a few surprising revelations.
1. Pain tolerance isn’t static, and you can increase your threshold fairly easily.
Let’s start with the basics: Certain techniques can increase pain tolerance, so if you’re hoping to join the cast of Jackass, start practicing. Mindfulness meditation seems particularly effective, and one review found that the technique influenced “unique brain mechanisms in the regulation of pain.”
Researchers first realized that they were onto something when performing an experiment using heat to stimulate pain; they noticed that Zen masters required higher temperatures to report moderate levels of discomfort, which led them to conclude that frequent meditators have lower pain sensitivity overall.
The effect can be fairly extreme in some cases and seems proportional to the meditator’s experience level; if you’re a beginner, you’ll notice some small benefits, but the master meditators can withstand intense pain caused by burning coals, sharpened hooks, or marathon Big Bang Theory viewing sessions.
Not a fan of meditation? Get someone else to do it for you. Hypnosis seems to have a similar effect on chronic pain, according to an extensive 2012 review.
“[A person can] significantly reduce pain through hypnosis, which taps into the same mind control as meditation and other techniques that have been practiced in various spiritual belief systems for millennia,” Roselyn Smith, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and hypnotherapist, tells Urbo.
Smith says that the neurological mechanism involves the amygdala, an almond-shaped part of the brain that plays a major role in processing emotions, as well as the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis, which plays a major role in causing eighth-graders to fail out of spelling bees (it’s also involved in our stress response).
“The key in hypnosis is to keep the mind focused on other thoughts and physical sensations by activating sensory memory,” Smith explains.
In fact, meditation can even replace anesthesia for certain types of surgeries.
“While I do not personally practice surgical hypnosis, I have met a couple of colleagues who do,” Smith says. “They are actually in the operating room with patients who have opted for hypnosis rather than chemical anesthesia during surgery.”
That doesn’t mean that patients avoid all analgesic substances, however. Surgeons might still use topical anesthetics to numb pain, in which case patients rely on meditation or hypnosis to handle the anxiety of being awake while your body is being dissected in front of you.
If you find that concept disturbing, you might want to skip this next section.
2. Some people are able to withstand incredible amounts of pain…to turn themselves into mummies.
The concept of sokushinbutsu isn’t for the faint of heart. In certain Buddhist sects, monks place extraordinary value on asceticism—avoiding the pleasures of the senses. That means they eat bland foods, wear simple clothes, and watch nothing but Antiques Roadshow.
Some monks took the concept to the extreme in an attempt to become sokushinbutsu. For 1,000 days, they would engage in exercise and live on a special diet of water, seeds, and nuts. For the next 1,000 days, they’d shed those extra calories by exclusively dining on roots and pine bark with a special after-dinner urushi tea break.
Urushi tea, by the way, is made from a toxic sap that wards off parasites. That helped with the next step: Monks would be entombed in stone, sitting in the lotus position, where they’d breathe through a tube. They’d ring a bell every day to show that they were still alive. Once they stopped ringing the bell, the tomb was sealed.
The gruesome process turned the monks’ bodies into perfectly preserved mummies. Obviously, it took a tremendous amount of self-control, so most failed; according to travel site Japan Reference (link opens a page with somewhat graphic pictures), monks have attempted the practice for centuries, but only 24 sokushinbutsu are known to exist.
3. David Blaine used his high pain threshold to produce an incredible feat of “magic.”
Okay, we know David Blaine is a street magician, but he claims that one of his tricks isn’t an illusion, and other professional magicians seem to agree. The trick is below, but if you’re squeamish, we’ll explain it: He sticks a needle directly through his bicep, then pulls it out while Ricky Gervais giggles like an idiot.
Why would he do something so uncomfortable, repulsive, and hard to watch? We’re talking about Gervais, of course—that guy can giggle through anything.
After Blaine removes the needle, his arm doesn’t bleed. Granted, if he’d gone on ABC with a “watch how much I gush when I poke myself” trick, the FCC would probably launch an investigation, but it’s still surprising to see the magician emerge without any apparent damage.
Blaine has gone to great lengths to prove that this trick isn’t an illusion, even visiting an x-ray technician on the aforementioned special to show he’s not using prosthetics. We’re still somewhat skeptical, but there is a medical explanation for the stunt.
By carefully inserting a thin needle through his bicep, Blaine might have created a fistula—a hollow area surrounded by scar tissue. He could then gradually increase the size of the needles, eventually working up to the nightmare-inducing tool seen in the video. Every time Blaine repeats the trick, he starts at the same point, then slightly changes the course of the needle every time he feels pain.
David Blaine: “is this your card?”
Me: “wow, yeah it is”
David Blaine: “cool, look at this knitting needle that I stabbed through my hand”
— Jeff (@jeffsqu) October 1, 2017
Blaine, by the way, is a longtime practitioner of meditation, and he claims to have tremendous willpower and pain tolerance as a result. He also claims to be able to levitate, though, so take that with a grain of magical salt.
4. If you’ve ever wondered why Kenya produces so many award-winning runners, we may have (part of) the answer.
Look at a list of the top long-distance runners of all time, and you’ll notice something: Many of them are Kenyan. In fact, most of them are from a tribe called the Kalenjin, a relatively small group of about five million people.
As NPR reported, scientists have put forward several theories to explain the Kalenjin’s dominance. They seem like natural marathon runners, and it’s possible that they have certain genetic traits (specifically, thin ankles and calves) that make them superior athletes. Perhaps it’s their high-starch diets or their high-altitude training environment.
Perhaps, though, it’s their incredibly intense circumcision ritual (note: If you had problems watching the David Blaine video, you’ll really want to skim this next paragraph).
Many members of the Kalenjin take part in a traditional coming-of-age ceremony that’s, well, intense. Around age 15, boys of the tribe crawl naked through a tunnel of African stinging nettles, at which point they’re beaten on the ankles. Shortly thereafter, they’re circumcised with a sharp stick. Then, they’re forced to watch the entire first season of The Big Bang Theory.
Okay, we made up the last part; no society is that cruel. Still, throughout the intense ritual, participants are expected to keep a completely straight face.
In an even more intense version of the ceremony, some boys have mud caked on their faces. The mud dries; if it cracks during the initiation, the participant is labeled a coward.
Some anthropologists believe that the Kalenjin culture’s insistence on pain tolerance makes them well suited for marathons, which require extraordinary willpower and a high pain threshold. Scientists do believe that cultural differences can influence a person’s sensitivity to pain.
Even so, many Kalenjin are now rejecting the ceremony as cruel and unnecessary. Kalenjin runner Elly Kipgogei told NPR he won’t force his children to complete the initiation, noting that there are other ways to teach kids about willpower (ideally, ways that don’t involve stinging nettles or sharpened sticks).
“I believe perseverance you can get through many ways. Not necessarily through circumcision,” Kipgogei said. “I will teach [my kids] how to persevere.”
And while the Kalenjin are an extreme example of how cultural differences can affect the way people perceive pain, they also show how developing tolerance can have positive physical effects on a person’s health.
“The world would be a much better place if all humans worked on calming their reactivity, both physical and mental,” Smith says.
More importantly, we’d have a lot more awesome mummies hanging around. That’s change we can get behind.