Anthropological Musings on the Painfully Hot Ghost Chili

Last Wednesday, the Hub and I ventured over to Inman Square’s East Coast Grill for their legendary Hell Night. For four days out of the year, the talented chefs at East Coast prepare a menu to tantalize and terrify the taste buds. Habenero-infused vodka, Chile Chimichurri steaks, oysters drenched in hot sauce, and a dozen other spicy options ranging from one to nine chili peppers grace the menu. The star of the night, however, is the pasta from hell. This pasta, made from the world’s hottest ghost chilies, has been featured on the craze foodie hit Man vs. Food, where even the daring Adam Richman could only take about two bites. This pasta is hot. And I ordered it.

You are required to sign a waver before you dig in, which is all part of the fun. But after the first bite, the most excruciating pain sets in, the kind of pain that sends tears down your cheek as you dig your high heel into your calf to distract your dendrites from the horror taking place in your mouth. Now, don’t get me wrong. I live for spicy food. I eat sriracha on everything. I nibble on raw jalapenos while I cook spicy Mexican food. I have successfully taken an adolescent dare to drink an entire bottle of Tabasco. And by the time reached the half-way mark on my pasta from hell, I was doubled over in pain and had to stop. But I took it home, and the next night suffered through the rest (armed, of course, with a full bottle of antacids for the heart burn that came later that night).

When I recovered, I started wondering why in the world I freely and intentionally chose to do something so painful, not just once, but two nights in a row. Everydaythomist that I am, I toyed with the question of whether my actions constituted daring, one of the vices against fortitude that inclines the appetite toward danger in ways contrary to reason.

Turns out, scientists are doing research on this very question. A few months ago, the NYTimes featured an article on the pleasure and pain of chili peppers based on the research from Dr. Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania:

[Rozin]has evidence for what he calls benign masochism. For example, he tested chili eaters by gradually increasing the pain, or, as the pros call it, the pungency, of the food, right up to the point at which the subjects said they just could not go further. When asked after the test what level of heat they liked the best, they chose the highest level they could stand, “just below the level of unbearable pain.” As Delbert McClinton sings (about a different line of research), “It felt so good to hurt so bad.”

Rozin disagrees with theories that argue for an evolutionary advantage to eating hot peppers, say, for example, by arguing that they lower blood pressure or provide some other such advantage in health. In fact, Rozin thinks there actually is not an evolutionary advantage at all to such acts:

No one knows for sure why humans would find pleasure in pain, but Dr. Rozin suggests that there’s a thrill, similar to the fun of riding a roller coaster. “Humans and only humans get to enjoy events that are innately negative, that produce emotions or feelings that we are programmed to avoid when we come to realize that they are actually not threats,” he said. “Mind over body. My body thinks I’m in trouble, but I know I’m not.” And it says, hand me another jalapeño.

One of the key observations here is that no other mammal likes hot peppers. And from this observation, Rozin and others draw an interesting conclusion: the human taste for painfully hot peppers says something important about what it means to be human:

[A]s Paul Bloom, a Yale psychologist, puts it, “Philosophers have often looked for the defining feature of humans — language, rationality, culture and so on. I’d stick with this: Man is the only animal that likes Tabasco sauce.”

That’s from Dr. Bloom’s new book, “How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like,” in which he addresses the general nature of human pleasure, and some very specific, complicated pleasures. Some, like eating painfully spicy food, are accidental, at least in their specificity. A complicated mind is adaptive, but love of chilies is an accident.

And that is what I celebrate behind my respirator as my son and I dice habaneros, accidental pleasures. A taste for chilies has no deep meaning, no evolutionary value. It’s just a taste for chilies. I might add, though, that since it takes such a complicated brain and weird self-awareness to enjoy something that is inherently not enjoyable, only the animal with the biggest brain and the most intricate mind can do it.

Take heart, chili heads. It’s not dumb to eat the fire, it’s a sign of high intelligence.

I find this a fascinating and largely compelling contribution to philosophical anthropology. Whereas for most animals, pleasure is a function of biology, humans have a lot more flexibility. They can, in many ways, choose what it is that brings them pleasure, even things that go against biology or evolutionary advantage. That is, human beings are masters of their actions largely because they are masters of their pleasure.

This means that for human beings in particular, morality cannot simply be a matter of examining nature and drawing normative conclusions. Human beings are greater than the sum of their biological parts, and the objects from which they draw pleasure cannot be reduced to merely a biochemical neural reaction.

When it comes to chili peppers and roller coasters, the human ability to find pleasure in biologically unpleasant things may not have much moral consequence, but in other areas the question may be more serious. For example, a friend sent me an Atlantic article on porn addiction which also examines the recent prevalence of anal sex. I hesitate to even quote the article on my blog due to how explicit it was, but I do think the following revelation from the author is significant:

Never was this made plainer to me than during a one-night stand with a man I had actually known for quite a while. A polite, educated fellow with a beautiful Lower East Side apartment invited me to a perfunctory dinner right after his long-term girlfriend had left him. We quickly progressed to his bed, and things did not go well. He couldn’t stay aroused. Over the course of the tryst, I trotted out every parlor trick and sexual persona I knew. I was coquettish then submissive, vocal then silent, aggressive then downright commandeering; in a moment of exasperation, he asked if we could have anal sex. I asked why, seeing as how any straight man who has had experience with anal sex knows that it’s a big production and usually has a lot of false starts and abrupt stops. He answered, almost without thought, “Because that’s the only thing that will make you uncomfortable.” This was, perhaps, the greatest moment of sexual honesty I’ve ever experienced—and without hesitation, I complied. This encounter proves an unpleasant fact that does not fit the feminist script on sexuality: pleasure and displeasure wrap around each other like two snakes.

If anal sex is unpleasant, why do it? Human intentionality, that is, human choice, can transform unpleasant actions and unpleasant objects into pleasure. In Dependent Rational Animals, Alistair McIntyre made the somewhat surprising claim that ethics could not be separated from biology. Ghost chilies and anal sex remind us that morality also cannot be reduced to biology. Human intentionality transcends what we are biologically conditioned to do.

Natural law scholars, especially those rooted in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, debate whether natural law should be grounded in a “metaphysical biology” which assumes that the normative “ought” can be drawn from the biological “is.” The more we learn about biology, the more important biology becomes in our moral reflections, and this, I think, is a good thing. Biology reminds us that we are creatures, not just spirits. It reminds us how much we share with our non-human animal cousins. But, while biology can tell us what it means to be “animal” (which humans are), it cannot tell us what it means to be human. In Aristotelian parlance, our human species is derived from our genus (animal) and differentia (rational). And that differentia does a lot to separate us from our non-human animal cousins. It does not totally separate us, but it separates us enough to give us pause as we realize that our animal nature cannot explain the many perplexing questions regarding why we do what we do. Now, if you will excuse me, I need another antacid.

7 comments so far

  1. everydaythomist on

    Here is another link on Rozin’s research.

  2. Nik on

    Hi Beth,
    while you recover your stomach lining, let me first comment on the article by Jason Goldman (citing Rosin) you reference. The article uses sensationalism to be more entertaining, which is risky but may be necessary for popular science writing. Eating chili and stabbing yourself are not the same thing. Let’s distill the information. TRPV1 receptors ( in the mouth are as far as we know mainly responsible for temperature sensation. Spicy eating habits are an acquired taste that not all enjoy, and may be independent of heat tolerance. Spicy food is pleasurable for spice likers until the pain surpasses the pleasure. Some humans engage in thrill-seeking behavior, which to them is also pleasurable. A controlled thrill is cognitively well distinguished from a real danger.

    The human brain is amazing- I hope I can study it more some day. We have known for quite some time that pain and pleasure may be linked and appear to be processed in overlapping parts of the brain. For example heat in general seems to first trigger pleasure in the brain (, and once it reaches a certain threshold, pain. From what I gleaned in the short time I had for looking up stuff today, these sensations (heat, pain, pleasure) are primarily processed in the R-complex (AKA “reptilian brain”), an evolutionarily ancient part of the brain. I am going out on a limb there, but it does make sense for a reptile (and other animals) to seek out warmth, and seeking pleasure also makes sense. A connection between warmth and pleasure (and not chilis per se) should yield a net selective advantage evolutionarily.

    What is more, pain leads to the release of endorphins (, the body’s own painkillers and then some. Endorphins act via opioid receptors. If that sounds like drugs, it’s because that’s how many hard drugs work. The trick is that unless you overdo it the pain subsides quicker than the endorphin rush. We humans are very ingenious when it comes to drug use. Perhaps your brain is unusually receptive to endorphins (the relevant circuits are reinforced), which also cause Runner’s high. Perhaps you carry a number of genes (e.g. neurotransmitter receptor variants) that especially favor this type of wiring. Or maybe it is simply reinforcement through learning. It is all good though, because this type of reward system stimulation is legal. For now, I would like to end with the reminder that since your brain is biological, anything you think and feel is consequently biological. It is impossible to do anything that goes “against biology.” I also strongly disagree with the notion that humans are “masters of their action or […] pleasure.” More on that later. Meanwhile, maybe Dr. Bloom’s book ( is for you? On a second thought, give me that!

    • everydaythomist on

      Awesome, Nik. Just awesome. I learn so much in our exchanges. I am very familiar with endorphins, and as I ate my chilies, I was reflecting on the “high” I felt, similar to a feeling I get when I do ten-mile runs or pull an all-nighter reading Thomas. Endorphins, I am sure, play a factor in why there was such pleasure in an overall painful experience.

      I have no doubt at all that the processing of pleasure is rooted in the primitive brain. Aristotle, over 2000 years ago, knew how fundamental the drive for pleasure was to us humans. But the reptilian part of the brain still does not explain why we seek out certain specific pleasures like chilies and anal sex. You see, when a reptile seeks warmth (and the pleasure derived from that warmth), there is an evolutionary advantage for the brain’s hard-wiring, namely, that as a cold-blooded animal, the reptile cannot regulate its own body temperature and needs to do so by external measures. There is no such advantage for the human to seek out chilies or sky diving (which is on your bucket list as I recall) or anal sex or a number of other things that humans do for pleasure alone.

      Let me bring up another example. This weekend, I went to a scotch tasting of single-mart barley scotch, all priced around $99/bottle (some more, the ones over 20 years old). For years now, I have been trying to get into whiskey and scotch. I have bought Jameson (I have Irish roots) and forced myself to have a sip each night in order to acclimate myself to the taste. I did this tasting of high end scotch. I have tried to get into whiskey-based cocktails. I hate the taste of whiskey/scotch. I hate its burn, I hate the nose and the way the aromas singe my olifactory receptors. Nevertheless, I keep drinking it (or trying to) because I want to like it. I know that a single malt scotch has many virtues that I cannot appreciate in my current state, and so this weekend when I had the opportunity to do a wine tasting (which I love) and a scotch tasting (which I don’t love), I did the scotch. I took the less pleasurable option in part because I hoped for a greater pleasure payout in the end when I came to appreciate scotch, but still, pleasure alone, and the biological mechanisms underlying the pleasure receptors in the brain, cannot alone explain my choice.

      Let me be clear in saying that biology is incredibly important in understanding who we are, but I think human behavior makes it clear that we are “greater than the sum of the parts.” And part of what makes us human is that we are constantly going against biology: a couple that adopts an older, mentally disabled child; a Trappist monk who spends 24 hours in deep contemplation; a graduate student who endures poverty for years in order to get a PhD in neuroscience . . . all of these choices, I think, must be rooted in something that transcends biology, that transcends what the brain is conditioned to do, but are nevertheless still rooted in the brain.

  3. Nik on

    my main concern at this point is that your definition of “biology” is dangerously simplistic. The problem in part appears to be rooted in your insistence of a mind / body dualism, which modern neuroscience does not support. One could even say that the possibility to actively dismantle specific parts of the self, including moral reasoning, counterevidences dualism in favor of equating mind and body. We can induce that the mind at any time is congruent with the specific brain state.

    When you say “Human intentionality transcends what we are biologically conditioned to do”, you forget that intentionality is generated in the frontal cortex of the brain, which is a very biological part of our biological brain. When the frontal cortex negotiates action with other parts of the brain, that is consequently a very biological process. I am not sure what you mean by “biologically conditioned”, but it is pretty clear that no human performs any action without his or her central nervous system. ALL human action is biological.

    “In Dependent Rational Animals, Alistair McIntyre made the somewhat surprising claim that ethics could not be separated from biology.”

    This statement is the logical consequence of data obtained from neuroscience, evolutionary psychology and other disciplines. Because our behavior is rooted in our brain architecture (which is individualized by each person’s specific gene set), and further modified to some degree by our experiences, it is becoming ever clearer that our basic morality is in fact decided biologically (neuroanatomically & biochemically).

    “This means that for human beings in particular, morality cannot simply be a matter of examining nature and drawing normative conclusions.”

    Actually, I think we pretty much can. However, we need to stop pretending that we are not part of nature, and we need to be careful to include ALL the information we have, lest we arrive at some simplistic conclusion like “might makes right.” If we actually take into account the specifics of our brain functions and correlate with what we know about how human societies and other animal populations flourish, I think we will find that this will be extremely valuable in maximizing human well-being (health and happiness).

    • everydaythomist on

      Thanks again for your thoughts. Let me respond most simply to your claim that “ALL action is biological” with a hearty affirmation. I am simply arguing that “all human action is not MERELY biological.”

      As far as mind/body dualism, I do hope this is something I avoid. I do not consider myself a dualist (all Descartes) and I am very influenced in both the way I think of science and anthropology by the neuroscience of Antonio Damasio. I don’t see exactly what in this post supports the dualism you point to. I am not arguing for a “mind over matter” position. I am simply saying that biology alone cannot account for human intentionality.

      You write that “our behavior is rooted in our brain architecture (which is individualized by each person’s specific gene set), and further modified to some degree by our experiences.” I agree. But how does experience shape the brain? Is the brain just a passive receiver to the various experiences we have? I don’t think so. I think we shape the brain through our intentionality. Now, surely, intentionality is shaped by the brain, but not by the brain alone.

      Let me give yet another personal example. I did gymnastics for about sixteen years. In gymnastics, you train yourself to do some really mind-blowing and completely unnatural tricks, like a double backhandspring back tuck on a four-inch wide balance beam. It took me ages to learn this specific trick, working my way up from tape on the floor, to a small beam, finally, to the real balance beam. Biologically, my mind and body had to be conditioned to actually do the trick. That is, I had to train my mind and body to do something unnatural. Mastering the trick meant totally habituating my mind and body to do the double backhandspring back tuck automatically. So mastering the trick was not separate at all from biology, but nothing in my biological constitution can explain why I would master such a trick in the first place. The decision to do so was, of course, dependent on the work of the pre-frontal cortex, but surely you aren’t saying the pre-frontal cortex alone could explain my 12-year old decision?

      My goal in doing ethics is to avoid reductionism–the belief that one field can explain the sum of human experience. I see room in questions like chili peppers and gymnastics for a fruitful exchange between philosophy and science. Now, I hope I am not providing a simplistic explanation of “biology,” but it seems you think I am being simplistic by not reducing ALL of human behavior to biology. I would respond that I am simply not being REDUCTIONISTIC.

      “If we actually take into account the specifics of our brain functions and correlate with what we know about how human societies and other animal populations flourish, I think we will find that this will be extremely valuable in maximizing human well-being (health and happiness).”

      I agree. And if we incorporate such neural information into our philosophical reasoning, rather than trying to replace philosophy with neurology, we will also help ensure that we account for the richness of human experience and behavior and avoid generating a reductionist view of the world.

      • Nik on


        I do not wish to do you injustice, but I would like to ask you to elaborate on your statement:
        “I am simply saying that biology alone cannot account for human intentionality.”

        Meanwhile, I feel I need to put my earlier statements in context. In the biological community there is general consensus that both nature and nurture are important factors in shaping the brain and with it, a person’s personality. I don’t think it is at all clear how much each part contributes, and so when asked, the proportion 50/50 comes to mind to keep the peace until more data is available.

        “how does experience shape the brain? Is the brain just a passive receiver to the various experiences we have? I don’t think so.”

        That makes two of us. From what I know, it is at this point thought that 1) the brain follows an intrinsic developmental program that is laid down by the interaction of the individual’s genes, and modified by the environment (nutrition, experiences). Once specific structures in the brain exist, they also feed back on other brain structures. So no, the brain does not simply receive experiences, there is an interaction between the brain and the environment which may change the brains structure in response. We also call this “learning.”

        “I think we shape the brain through our intentionality. Now, surely, intentionality is shaped by the brain, but not by the brain alone.”

        The brain surely is a fascinating organ. You can certainly find evidence of the brain reshaping itself through intentional training, such as your impressive-sounding acrobatics. We obviously still lack the knowledge to fully understand what is happening here, but I can infer that this may be an example of several areas of the cortex working through the motor cortex to condition the cerebellum (more: to perform the necessary body coordination.

        What I am getting at here is the previously mentioned compartmentalization of brain functions in differential anatomy. In a way, we have more than one “brain” as the different brain parts have evolved sequentially. I expect this fact to feature prominently in the generation of the illusion of a unified self. And I still do not see what other than the brain is supposed to generate intentionality, and how the incorporation of said “other” intentionality generator can leave you a physicalist and a monist.

        At this point I want to clarify that I think there is definitive value in thinking about ethics apart from its biological underpinnings. My point is only that it seems wise to consider the known facts of neurobiology in the application of ethics. And it will be most fascinating to better understand how the wiring of our brains limits our thinking. Maybe correcting for some of our brain’s biases may lead us to novel effective solutions to problems previously though unsolvable.

        Last not least, when some of what I say sounds reductionist to you, I blame it on the fact that I no longer see clear distinctions between fields. I think the natural sciences are still natural philosophy, only that they have mainly chosen in the last 350 years or so to limit themselves to the direct application of empirical methods to understanding reality under the exclusion of supernatural causes. Occasionally, they show their roots and venture a little beyond pure empiricism. We could mention string theory here, or certain normative ideas based on biological findings. I can see nothing wrong with that, but I can see how this may be irritating to some who draw (arbitrary?) stricter boundaries between disciplines.

      • everydaythomist on

        I think our blog conversation has become victim to a bit of reductionism itself. I think you and I make better allies than enemies, and I really think our positions and perspectives overlap more than they oppose one another.

        Let me begin with your conclusion about the strict distinction between science and philosophy. I too don’t think that line between the disciplines can be strongly drawn, in part because I am an Aristotelian. Aristotle was a biologist, a physicist, an ethicist, and a metaphysician, and I think that our day and age demands such interdisciplinary rigor. You already see it among our academic colleagues. Neurobiologist Antonio Damasio wrote a book called Descarte’s Error using neuroscience to disprove Cartesian metaphysics (i.e. “the ghost in the machine” idea, which I also oppose strongly). Damasio is doing neuroscience and philosophy. Biologist and primatologist (and also hero of everydaythomist) Frans de Waal has a new book out called The Age of Empathy which uses primatology research to make ethical arguments. I have to plug my mentor Steve Pope here who has two books on ethics and evolution, one a revision of his dissertation and the other entitled Human Evolution and Christian Ethics which argues basically that evolutionary theory makes critically important contributions to the study of ethics that ethicists must acknowledge in order to do ethics well. Most recently, David Brook’s new work The Social Animal tries to do this, but as a journalist trained neither in philosophy nor science, I bet his is not the best example!

        There are a dozen other books like this integrating science and philosophy, blurring the disciplines and hopefully giving us a better, fuller understanding of what it means to be human. I think this blurring of the disciplines is done best when it is done expansively and not reductively, meaning that philosophy should not try to replace science and science should not try to replace biology. We have a lot to learn from one another, and neither philosophy nor biology (or any of the other natural sciences) is suited to answer every question about human experience and existence solely on the terms of its own discipline. I will quote my adviser: “The behavior of individual human beings is marked by a very high degree of complexity and cannot be adequately described, let alone explained, in monocausal terms, whether biological, cultural, or existential.” (The Evolution of Altruism, 9).

        There is something amazing about human beings that goes beyond what we see in the rest of the animal kingdom (save for many primates whom I think are a lot closer to human beings than we allow). In animals, most behavior has an easily-identifyable biological origin. In humans, due largely to the complex working of the human brain, behavior is shaped not only by biology (genes, physiology) but also by culture, by myths and stories, by customs, by worship, and by a dozen other factors that go beyond merely the inner-workings of the pre-frontal cortex. Humans have the ability to internalize social norms and reject others. This is what I mean by intentionality. And this is why the philosophical study of ethics (and its anthropological underpinnings) is still important, despite the enormous gains in scientific research. Love, motivation, and intention are all rooted in biology, but cannot be explained in purely biological terms.

        This is partially a question of “nurture” as you describe it, but it goes beyond “nurture.” How can you have, for example, a non-racist individual who was raised in a totally racist society? How is it that we can accept or reject the norms that are part of our nurturing? How is it that we can “love” the people who are suffering in Japan right now, people we have never met nor will ever meet? How is it that we can feel their pain and fear, mourn with them, and hopefully, in a few weeks, rejoice with them? And not just “how” (which is, I gladly admit, answerable largely in biological terms), but also why is it? Why do we love people in Japan? Why do we feel their pain? Why do I eat ghost chilies in spite of the pain? It is the “why” that philosophy typically takes as its own domain, and it is the “why” of the ghost chili that I was musing on here in the blog. The “why” is dependent on the biological “how” (which you clarified in your first response regarding endorphins and pain) but the “why” is not reducible to the “how.”

        Now, there is a trend in biology, specifically sociobiology, which assumes a strong scientific materialism and asserts simplistic claims about religion and ethics that I want to avoid (E.O. Wilson calls Christian morality and ethic for “suckers,” for example). But I believe human beings are animals, and thus, any ethic or philosophy more generally that does not take our animality into account is doomed to fail. Moreover, I think it important to affirm the animalic nature from the perspective of Christian theology because it is necessary to back up the Christian claim that the body is good. But I do want to oppose sociobiologists who are hostile to philosophy and theology and who want to totally replace my field with their own. Surely you too would disagree and say that there are good things to be learned from Aquinas and others?

        And so I definitely agree that it “seems wise to consider the known facts of neurobiology in the application of ethics.” But I can’t do it on my own. I have a lot to study in my own field. I depend on open-minded scientists like yourself who are willing to dialogue with me in a charitable and hospitable way, who are willing to teach and to also be taught. This is why I LOVE your comments on my blog. I learn so much from you, and I hope I become a better ethicist in the process. Please keep challenging me, and let us both try to do so in the spirit of collaboration rather than competition. I assure you, there are evolutionary advantages if we do!

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