Hurts So Good: Dopamine Is Involved In Pleasure And PainPleasure and pain can be felt simultaneously.  Think of a marathon runner, women in child birth, or the classic example of sadomasochistic sex.  Although they may seem to be opposites, pleasure and pain, surprisingly, are similar biochemical events and engage the same brain circuit.

In his book The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good, David Linden tells of an experiment conducted at The University of Michigan in 2006 in which the researchers utilized brain scanning and a carefully controlled way of inducing muscle pain to show that the brain’s dopamine system is highly activated when someone experiences pain.  The dopamine pathway has traditionally been best known for being the core of the pleasure/reward circuit. As a matter of fact, the greatest dopamine release was seen in the subjects who reported the greatest pain.

Now, what in the heck does that mean?

The interpretation is not really clear.  First of all, we have to consider that even the most sophisticated brain scanning equipment in humans is crude when compared to the precise information that can be gathered from electrodes actually inserted into the brains of rats.  When a similar experiment was conducted at the Imperial College London with rats, two different patterns of responses were recorded to painful stimulus – one in which dopamine neurons were inhibited by pain and one in which dopamine neurons were activated by pain.

This finding suggests that there are two parallel circuits. One is the well-known pleasure circuit activated by rewards, such as food or sex, and inhibited by pain.  The second is a “salience circuit” that is activated by both pleasure and pain and closely tied to the emotional meaning given to the stimuli.  Other experiments indicate that, in terms of brain activation, emotional pain overlaps the physical pain pathway.  Linden writes:

In the lexicon of cognitive neuroscience, both pleasure and pain indicate salience, that is, experience that is potentially important and thereby deserving of attention.  Emotion is the currency of salience, and both positive emotions like euphoria and love and negative emotions like fear, anger, and disgust signal events that we must not ignore.

This suggests that dopamine acts as an interface between physical and emotional events and that dopamine is released with both positive and negative stimuli. The determining mechanism here is the salience of the stimuli — the importance of it and the meaning given to it by the person experiencing it.  This may be why meditation and other thought therapies are proving so effective in treating pain.

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  1. Hi Debbie – thanks for sharing this post. We are driven by positive and negative events that happen to us daily. Being conscious and aware of what’s happening to us can reduce pleasure and pain, right?

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Vishnu, thank you for commenting. An aware, mindful, conscious approach to pain has proven to be as effective as morphine. How you interpret the pain, I would think effects the salience component. See post: for more info on that. I have read much on how to increase almost any pleasure through mindfulness and awareness. I would think that it can enhance everything from sex to a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Makes good even better! 🙂

  2. Hi Debbie,

    This is fascinating although I am having a hard time wrapping my head around it. The dopamine system is complex in one sense. The concluding point draws my attention though.

    “The determining mechanism here is the salience of the stimuli — the importance of it and the meaning given to it by the individual.”

    I had a big pain event yesterday. Wondering how this applies.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      The salience finding concurs with the previous information that it is only what we pay attention to that can effect our brain through neuroplasticity. I guess the old saying “just ignore it and it will go away” is somewhat true. I have found this to be true for physical sensations and other factors in my life.

  3. Re: your last response, do you think that this is what happens with depression? I have watched myself (as I find it all fascinating) focus or have a predisposition towards anything on the dark, negative side, (against my conscious desire to be happy), whereas if I were to use this malleable brain and manage to ignore that tendency are you saying that in effect I would be ‘cured’?

  4. Hi Debbie, I liked this post alot. Without our emotions we would not be human. We would most resemble robots. Knowning this, I chose to keep my emotions, Good or Bad. Thanks for sharing

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      Thanks, Vic! I think that it one of the biggest causes of suffering is the belief propagated by society that we only want and should want to feel good emotions. It is incredibly futile to just seek the good ones. I think it would also be incredibly boring. The full range of emotions adds the texture and richness to life. The challenge is to accept all emotions and feel them and move through them and learn from them. I think I will keep all mine too!

  5. Pingback: How Living in a Dopamine-Driven World Leads to Depression - The Best Brain Possible

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