Hot Sauce & the Neurobiology of the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict

[Script:] You can look at the neurobiology of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict through the prism of hot sauce. A glance at online hot sauce offerings shows that for millions, as one label proclaims, “Pain is good”. That certain people enjoy suffering is both common knowledge and punchline. “How many Jewish mothers does it take to change a lightbulb?” “It’s alright I’ll just sit here in the dark.” According to University of Pennsylvania researcher professor Paul Rozin, masochism, “the enjoyment of what appears painful or tiresome.” Exists on a spectrum of human pleasures- duh!. Riding on roller coasters, taking super hot baths, an affection for astringent drinks, the delight of sore muscles after a hard workout and many other human activities all the way to self mutilation can be considered forms of what professor Rozin calls “benign masochism”.

He studied the eating habits of Mexican children. Mexican babies react negatively to capsaicin, the chemical that makes peppers hot. As well they should. Capsaicin hurts. Capsaicin activates type C nociceptive fibers, which then release something called substance P, the “p” should stand for “pain” but it doesn’t. Substance P release is better known to your brain as “ouch!”

But our brains can be trained to experience the “ouch” as “oooh”. Mexican children and others grow up being told “the pain you’re feeling, that’s good!” In time it’s mom over matter. Cuisines from Indian Vindaloo to Chinese Szechuan to Buffalo chickens wings delight in the misery their recipes inflict. The malleability of our pain experience was dramatically demonstrated by great neuroscientist Jane Fonda. In the days BJF, before Jane Fonda, we exercised trying to avoid the pain. “I told the doctor, ‘It hurts when I do this’. He said, ‘Don’t do that’”. But post-Jane the goal was to “Make it burn.” With three little words pain became pleasure. Hurt was transformed from danger to desire The switch has to do with the interaction of two areas of the brain, the anterior cingulate cortex, a feeling part of the brain and the right ventral prefrontal cortex, a thinking part. It appears that our brain’s thinking parts can be reprogrammed so the that nociceptor (pain fiber) activation and the discomfort it entails seem just, exactly what we want.

Culture can pleasurize even severe forms of pain. Generations of Catholic school children have literally prayed for the chance to emulate the church’s glorified martyrs and suffer their gruesome tortures to prove their pubescent faith. Virtually every American is taught to revere Nathan Hale’s famous last words, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”

European Jewry seems to revel in its historic hurts. Every summer we are religiously commanded to get depressed about the destruction of the second temple by the Romans in 57 CE. We celebrate Purim, a tale of one man who merely had a DESIRE to attack the Persian Jews centuries ago. A story exactly no one thinks is true and of course our seemingly endless outpouring of Holocaust memorials. Palestinians may embrace their suffering even more intensely. In March 2014 the elected Palestinian prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh declared, “We are a people who yearn for death just as our enemies yearn for life!”

If the Palestinians and Israelis have developed cultures that on some neurologic level enjoy even desire the pain and suffering they inflict and inspire. Maybe part of the solution is to give both sides some alternative form of agonizing pleasure… hot sauce anyone?

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