The Science Behind The Torment

There is a rarely mentioned, supposedly nearly-extinct sect of Buddhism that believes in the words “perfection through pain.” The philosophy is not one most people would be keen to adapt, but it does take into account something that most people don’t want to acknowledge. Pain is a part of life and it is not going to go away until life goes away. Most people, of course, are capable of enduring pain. The natural pain threshold and pain tolerance of people may differ from person to person, but old lore has always said that men had a lower tolerance for suffering and torment than women did. Most of these same stories point to childbirth as the primary evidence for this age-old hypothesis, though recent discoveries are starting to reveal that the opposite is true.

According to research conducted by the University of Washington, depending on the form of stimuli, men actually have a higher pain tolerance than women. The research went to great lengths to remove any preconceived cultural and social notions about pain and the ability to handle it. The point was to find a biological basis for some of the most commonly held ideas about the nature of pain and whether gender has an appreciable effect on pain. It is one of many studies focused on the nature and biology of pain, which is understandable when one considers just how little people know about it. Up until the 1960s, for example, the medical community was completely unaware that the brain can rewire the nervous system to respond to certain painful stimuli. That dispelled the long-held belief that the stimuli-nerve-reaction sequence of pain signals was set in stone.

The study published results that point to the possibility of men and women’s bodies having different methods for processing and dealing with pain. There was also evidence that women also had an additional biological system in place that used estrogen as a key component. In one test that was conducted, it was found that women were more likely to complain from temperature-related pain than men at lower levels. One specific test subjected people to a heated surface, with all of the women feeling the pain at a colder temperature than the men. The results were consistent with other forms of tests. However, just because women have a lower pain threshold than men does not mean that they are more likely to succumb to pain.

According to the study, succumbing to pain is just as tightly linked to psychology as it is to biology. Culture and environment are just as likely to affect how someone handles pain as genetics and body build. For example, proper physical training can often help someone endure and overcome levels of pain that most individuals would not have been able to. In others, the social norms and demands of the culture they grew up in may psychologically force them to endure, even when the body is being pushed to the limits. The researchers sometimes commented that it was difficult to separate cultural and psychological factors from the results their tests gave them in the early stages of the study.

Despite the many answers that it opened up, it also posed a number of questions. It unraveled the possibility of hormonal factors being involved in pain and pain perception. The fact that estrogen levels seemed related to some painful stimuli also prompted a number of inquiries, as the exact effects of the estrogen (whether they dulled the pain or enhanced the sensation of it) were undetermined.


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