BOOK REVIEW: Hurts So Good by Leigh Cowart

Hurts So Good: The Science and Culture of Pain on PurposeHurts So Good: The Science and Culture of Pain on Purpose by Leigh Cowart
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

Out: September 14, 2021

Humans devote a lot of effort to avoiding unpleasant sensations. I’ve even heard people philosophize that all human activity is about moving toward pleasure or away from pain, but this claim fails on two grounds. First, people don’t invariably flee from pain, sometimes they run into its arms. Second, the dichotomization of pleasure and pain, categorizing them as opposites, also fails for a wide variety of human endeavors.

This book reflects upon a diverse set of cases in which the pleasure-pain dichotomy breaks down, attempting to glimpse why this is the case. Cowart investigates pepper-eating contests, ultramarathons, Polar Bear Club mid-winter dips, flagellation by religious adherents, and sexual sadomasochism. One thing these diverse activities have in common is that individuals voluntarily and purposefully subject themselves to intensely painful sensations. Throughout the book, the author is forthright about the varied ways that she has been attracted to pain, including: ballet dancing, an eating disorder, and sexual masochism.

This book takes a story-centric approach. As the subtitle suggests, it does present scientific findings, but this information is tucked in amid the stories – both her own confessional tales and the stories of the masochists (broadly speaking, i.e. not referring only to sexual pain-seekers) she meets during her research trips.

As a student of both martial arts and yoga, I found that the changing of one’s perception of, and relationship to, sensation is one of the most profound and empowering aspects of these practices. I, therefore, was curious what brought people to the purposeful pursuit of pain and what benefits others found. Not surprisingly, there isn’t just one reason for all cases, and Cowart discusses neurochemical, social, and psychological reasons. If you’re curious about why people engage in pain purposefully and voluntarily, this book is a must-read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Why We Run by Bernd Heinrich

Why We Run: A Natural HistoryWhy We Run: A Natural History by Bernd Heinrich
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book is actually several different books woven together. It’s part autobiography of the author’s running life, it’s part a study of comparative biology between various creatures with an endurance bent and humans, it’s part an examination of the evolutionary biology of humanity’s proclivity to run, and it’s part guide to preparing to engage in ultramarathons. Often I pan such books as being unfocused, ill-planned, and—most often—attempts to whip an article’s worth of material into a book length piece. However, Heinrich keeps it interesting enough that I don’t feel it necessary to level these criticisms. Still, my first warning to readers is that one has to read on for quite a while before one gets to the book that one thought one bought—i.e. one that answers the title question of “why WE (i.e. people in general and not the author specifically) run.” In short, you’ll need to have an eclectic set of interests to get through the whole book, but some may find reading only part of it gives them all they wanted from the book.

It should be noted that the book is on its second title. The original title was: “Racing the Antelope: What Animals Can Teach Us about Running and Ourselves.” The author explains in the front matter why the original name was changed (apparently some loud and obnoxious writer had a similarly titled book on a different subject and whined about it.) Changing the title wasn’t required because: a.) titles cannot be copyrighted, and b.) it wasn’t exactly the same title anyway. Still the new, more succinct, title may lead one to expect a succinct book, which this isn’t so much.

Some readers will enjoy Heinrich’s writing style; others will find that it ventures too far into flowery territory on occasion. I did enjoy it. However, I can see how a reader might find some of the descriptive sequences to be excessive–particularly toward the beginning of the book.

While there’s some overlapping and interweaving, one can think of the book in three sections. It’s written in twenty chapters. The first six tell the author’s story of getting into running and his youth. The next eight chapters deal in comparative and evolutionary biology. In general, these chapters look at the biology of other creatures as they pertain to said animals’ ability to engage in running (or activities that are like running in that they involve endurance of muscles and the cardiovascular system.) Also included in this section is the evolutionary biology of humans as it relates to becoming a species of runners. This is the core of the book and was the most interesting section for me. In it, Heinrich considers the endurance activities of insects, birds, antelopes, camels, and frogs. Each of these has a particular relevance. For example, camels are masters of endurance under harsh conditions. Frogs tell the story of the difference between fast and slow twitch musculature (relevant to sprinters versus distance runners.) Antelopes are, of course, the exemplars running in the animal kingdom, but the nature of their running is so different from that of humans (i.e. making quick escapes versus pursuing wounded prey.) The last six chapters can be seen as a guide to preparing for ultramarathon races, but it’s also a continuation of the author’s self-examination of his running life from the time he began ultramarathoning.

I’d recommend this book for readers who are interested in the science of human performance. It’s well written, and the insights it offers into the biology of other animals are fascinating. Whether you read the whole book or just the part that pertains to your interests, you’ll take something away from this book.

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