When was the last time you screamed? For me, it was a few months ago, in a hotel room in Mumbai. I was packing up early in the morning and tried to remove an adapter from the wall. It was a loaner from the hotel, an ugly thing with metal prongs in unpredictable places, and I must have touched it the wrong way, because I ended up flat on my back on the other side of the room, gasping and shaking.
We scream when we are in pain. But, weirdly, we also scream for the opposite of pain—intense pleasure, joyous surprise, great excitement. Have you seen the videos of fangirls in the sixties in the presence of the Beatles? They positively shriek.
Crying is also triggered by opposites. You might cry on the worst day of your life and on the best. Weddings and funerals; the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. I have a friend who sees himself as a bit of a tough guy, but I watched him tear up at a sappy commercial made for the Olympics about how our mothers help us when we fall down. And I sniffled along with him, though it’s hard to put into words precisely what was squeezing the tears from us.
Crying is also triggered by opposites. You might cry on the worst day of your life and on the best. Weddings and funerals; the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.
Crying is mysterious. One of my favorite books is Pictures and Tears. It’s by the art critic James Elkins and it’s all about paintings that make people cry. Sometimes the paintings depict awful events that might make you cry if you saw them in real life, such as the death of a child. Sometimes they have painful associations. Elkins heard from an English professor whose wife had had an affair. She had recently made a painting of their bed, empty and unmade, and one day when the professor was alone in the house, he looked at the painting and thought about what it meant, and he began to cry. But Elkins also heard from people who cried because the paintings were so beautiful that they could hardly bear it; they were moved by a positive emotional response to extraordinary human creations.
Once you look for paradoxical reactions, you see them everywhere. We laugh at what’s funny, but we also laugh when anxious or embarrassed. We grin when happy, but sometimes we grin when angry. Smiling is associated with joy, but when researchers asked people to watch a sad movie scene—the part of Steel Magnolias where a woman is speaking at the funeral of her adult daughter—about half of the subjects smiled. Or consider the face associated with orgasm. It looks a lot like someone in agony, marked by scowling and grimacing. Actually, when shown photographs of people’s faces during orgasm, subjects misidentified them as faces of pain about 25 percent of the time.
In general, extreme expressions are hard to interpret. The authors of a paper in Science give the example of two people, one of whom has just won an enormous lottery, while the other has just watched his 3-year-old getting hit by a car, and suggest that, looking at their faces, you might not be able to tell them apart. In support of this, they find that people are unable to distinguish between winners and losers of high-stakes sports competitions when they see their faces in isolation (although, interestingly, once they saw their body postures and knew what the athletes were responding to, they would then “see” the emotionality of the faces—they were no longer ambiguous).
Once you look for paradoxical reactions, you see them everywhere. We laugh at what’s funny, but we also laugh when anxious or embarrassed. We grin when happy, but sometimes we grin when angry.
To take a different case, think about the reaction that people sometimes have toward babies. We want to pinch and squeeze. We often nibble on babies and say we are going to eat them. Just imagine, your friend shows you his one-year-old baby, and you lean over, grab the baby’s toes, gnaw on them, and growl “I want to gobble you up!”—and nobody thinks you’re crazy, not even the baby. In a survey done by Oriana Aragón and her colleagues, they found that most people agreed to statements like these:
If I am holding an extremely cute baby, I have the urge to squeeze his or her little fat legs.
If I look at an extremely cute baby, I want to pinch those cheeks.
When I see something I think is so cute, I clench my hands into fists.
I am the type of person that will tell a cute child “I could just eat you up!” through gritted teeth.
The theory that Aragón and her colleagues have about these strange reactions is that they arise when your feelings—toward the Beatles, an artwork, a baby—become overwhelming. You need to calm the system down, and so, to compensate, you generate expressions and actions that counteract your feelings, that go in the opposite direction. Think of it like cold water on a fire that might get out of control. The researchers who studied the orgasm face argue something similar, suggesting that the expression is an attempt to regulate a “too-intense sensorial input.”
Philosophers have long appreciated the curious relationship between pain and pleasure. Plato describes Socrates rubbing his aching leg and saying, “How strange would appear to be this thing that men call pleasure! And how curiously it is related to what is thought to be its opposite, pain! … If you seek the one and obtain it, you are almost bound always to get the other as well.” In modern times, many psychologists endorse an “opponent-process” theory of experience, whereby our minds seek balance, or homeostasis, so that positive reactions are met with negative feelings, and vice versa.
In fact, we sometimes play with pain in order to maximize the contrast with future experience, so as to generate future pleasure. We engineer experiences in which the rush associated with the period immediately after pain’s release is powerful enough to outweigh the negative of the original pain. And so the bite of a hot bath is worth it because of the blissful contentment that comes when the temperature is just right; the mouth burn of hot curry is pleasurable because of the shock of relief when you guzzle down some cool beer.
Along these lines, laboratory studies find that after experiencing pain, such as by having one of their hands immersed in freezing water, people report that subsequent experiences, like the taste of chocolate, are more pleasurable. Want some cake? Can I shock you right before you eat it—it’ll taste better!
It turns out, then, that if you think something is really going to hurt and it hurts just mildly, the magic of contrast can cause this mild hurt to transform into pleasure.
Consider also a series of studies published by Siri Leknes and colleagues, designed to explore what investigators called “pleasant pain.” Their study involved putting subjects in a brain scanner and exposing them to a series of experiences of heat—mild, intense, or in between. Before any experience, they got a warning about what they could expect, but sometimes the warning would be incorrect. The big finding is that while normally the in-between amount of heat was judged to be painful, it would stop being painful if it was preceded by a warning to expect intense heat—then it was reported as pleasurable.
It turns out, then, that if you think something is really going to hurt and it hurts just mildly, the magic of contrast can cause this mild hurt to transform into pleasure. Now, I’ll add the obvious here, which is that you’re not going to get this effect if the pain gets too intense. If you think you’re going to get a blow- torch applied to the back of your hand and the experimenter instead pokes you with the lit end of a cigar, you won’t go Whee! But this evidence does suggest that it will hurt a bit less.
These experiments are a bit weird, but the main idea is familiar: everyone knows that food never tastes so good as when you are hungry, lying on the sofa is blissful after a long run, and life itself is wonderful when you’re leaving the dentist’s office.
Adapted from The Sweet Spot by Paul Bloom. Copyright © 2021 by Paul Bloom. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.