Chilies, love ’em or hate ’em. It’s quite a human thing, isn’t it? Willingly going through the pain of eating chilies, with some people even going back for a second helping of something that gets their tongue burning, their eyes watering and their nose running. But why do we keep doing it? Why are there so many people who love hot and spicy food, while others really hate it? What happens in our brain and psychology when we eat it?
How does this ‘tasty pain’ happen?
The stuff that makes a chili pepper hot is called capsaicin. This substance fools the pain receptors on your tongue and the mucus membranes in your mouth. It makes the receptors send signals to your brain that tells it there is fire, or extreme temperature. This gives a burning sensation, which is why we refer to such foods as ‘hot’.
In even higher concentrations it can produce these effects on other areas such as the rest of your skin or eyes. It is for example also the stuff that gives pepper spray its burning qualities.
Chilies do, however, also contain vitamins A, B, C and E, as well as minerals like potassium, thiamin and copper. (source: chilly.in) So, the pain is not completely useless. 😉 Humans seem to be the only living things that really enjoy eating chilies that hurt. Fun fact: birds don’t appear to have the same biochemical paths, and probably don’t suffer from chili burns. It seems accidental that in mammals it stimulates the same nerves that respond to actual heat.
Why can some handle it better than others?
This is where psychology comes in. But it is kind of weird. A study from 1980 found that there is actually not that much of a difference in the tolerance of capsaicin between people. (source: Rozin)
People who like a chili are not insensitive or less sensitive to the effects of capsaicin that chili dislikers turn away from. Actually, they seem to enjoy that burning sensation more. The emotional response to the same stimulus is different.
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Some have theorized that it is a cathartic effect. Catharsis is the process of working through or releasing and providing relief from strong emotion or feeling. The capsaicin in chilies stimulates our warning system, giving us an increased heart-rate and a release of endorphins while knowing we are not in actual danger. This leaves space for us to find a twisted sort of enjoyment in pain. We are consciously aware that while it hurts, it’s not going to damage us (when used in moderation of course). This is why we can relish in the safety; we have higher reasoning skills and know we are not at risk.
Yet, it does hurt, and whether we can enjoy that sensation or not seems to determine whether or not we can enjoy chili peppers. Think of adrenaline junkies, or horror movie lovers. It’s about the kick, the release of endorphins. This is also why some really go all out, and even join c
People who enjoy the hotness seem so have a preference for a level of ‘hot’ just below their tolerance. (source: Rozin, Gorman)
But there’s more: Pain is good
However, it could also be that capsaicin kills a lot of dangerous funghi and bacteria – a function that would also add usefulness for the plant that produces it, besides protecting the seeds from getting eaten here, there and everywhere. So chilies can work against bacteria. (source: Cichewicz)
This antimicrobial function seems to occur in different spices as well, giving rise to health drinks using turmeric to create ‘Golden Milk’ – something that has long existed in Eastern cultures, but recently turned health fad in some Western countries.
And why do we keep doing it despite the pain from chilies?
Well, we already discussed the very human ability to be able to enjoy things such as pain and fear in moderation. But there might be more at stake, because humans have been eating spice for centuries, if not millennia. I’m not kidding, actual fossils suggesting the early domestication of chili plants have been found (source: Perry et al.). Many spices have some kind of antimicrobial quality, which when added to food, can help make it safer to eat. The nice touch is that spices can also make it tastier.
So maybe we like eating them to look cool and tough in front of our friends. Maybe because it’s secretly a little bit funny to see someone struggle with a chili they cannot handle. Perhaps it’s just sensible, just the chili’s antibacterial properties. Or maybe it’s just because it gives your life a little bit more spice. However, chilies have been around for a long time, and will continue to be there for a long time too.
We want to know if introverts or extroverts like chili more. Please SHARE with your MBTI personality type and how much you like chilies on a scale from 1 – 20! We will work out which personality type is the most chili loving group!
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Chilly.in. “Benefits of Chili.” Chilly. N.d. Web. 30 Dec. 2017.
Cichewicz, RH. PA Thorpe. “The Antimicrobial Properties of Chile Peppers (Capsicm Species) and their uses in Mayan Medicine.” PubMed. Jun. 1996. Web. 30 Dec. 2017.
Gorman, James. “A Perk of Our Evolution: Pleasure in Pain of Chilies.” New York Times. Sept. 2010. Web. 30 Dec. 2017.
Perry, Linda. Ruth Dickau, Sonia Zarrilo, Irene Hold, Deborah M. Pearsall, Dolores R. Piperno, et al. “Starch Fossils and the Domestication and Dispersal of Chili Peppers in the Americas.” Science. Feb 2007. Web. 30 Dec. 2017.
Rozin, Paul. Deborah Schiller. “The Nature and Acquisition of a Preference for Chili Pepper by Humans.” Motivation and Emotion. March 1980. Web. pp. 77-101. 30 Dec. 2017.
Paul Bloom: Why We Like What We Like.