As I dug into the science behind spicy foods a couple of weeks ago — discovering exactly how certain chemical compounds create the sensation of heat without the actual existence of it — my mind kept revisiting one central question…

Why do people even like playing with this kind of fire?

A main tenant of existence is to keep existing, so it never made much sense to me that someone might consciously inflict pain on oneself. Sure, I push past the point of discomfort with exercise on an almost-daily basis, but I do it to get stronger and faster in the short term, and hopefully increase my life span in the long term.

What, exactly, is the benefit to burning taste buds?

The first theory that popped into my head is a bit of research I remember reading a few years ago. It turns out that part of the reason why soda pop is so addicting for some people is that the bursting bubbles of carbonation cause just enough discomfort to trigger a tiny hit of adrenaline and pain-killing endorphins.

Altruism, engage!

Essentially, when you gulp a Coke, Pepsi or (God help you) a La Croix, your tongue thinks it’s under attack in some small way. So the famed ‘fight-or-flight’ instinct takes over, as your brain prepares your body for action. My best initial guess was that scorching oneself with capsaicin-laced food follows the same basic feedback loop for some of you looney tunes.

I was right! At least, that’s the working theory according to some psychologists.

As the University of Pennsylvania’s Dr. Paul Rozin told the New York Times a few years back, there’s an element of mind-over-matter in the pleasure that some derive from testing their mouth’s limits. Much like the roller coaster analogy I made last week, the idea that you’re pushing your limits without actually putting yourself in danger can induce a powerful, addicting rush.

Just because I might go for that feeling with the treadmill turned up as high as it can go doesn’t mean I can’t at least appreciate those who get their jollies while digging into a habanero pepper. Now we’re getting somewhere.


But what if this passion isn’t so harmless? Can you cause real damage to yourself by climbing too high on the Scoville scale?

I ask because I’m not into literal self-harm, but also because would like to preserve my taste buds for further decades of use. I don’t feel this is an unreasonable feeling, even as I put myself out there for the Do-Goodery cause!

Much to my relief, there isn’t much out there in terms of people causing themselves serious digestive harm from consuming spicy food. Diarrhea, sure, but outside of a well-publicized horror story involving a torn esophagus caused by vomiting up ghost pepper puree, there’s little anecdotal evidence that would make me fear for my future quality of eating by downing more capsaicin than I’m accustomed to.

At the same time, our bodies react differently to outside stimuli, mostly because of body chemistry caused by genetics. What you chow down with no problem could send me to the toilet, retching … or worse. And the reaction to capsaicin excess has been known to send some to the hospital with severe headaches or even *gulp* heart attacks.

Let’s just say I wouldn’t rule anything out, because when it comes to the spicy stuff, I’m not built very well.

How It Works!

How Do-Goodery Works

While I’ve gotten a little more daring as an adult, my avoidance of even moderately spicy food has seemed rather inborn from the start. When I went to all-you-can-eat wing night at Quaker Steak and Lube with my friends, I was always the one getting sweet barbecue while they were exploring higher reaches of sauce pungency. It’s instinct.

But just last week, while on a business trip, I went ahead and tried some habanero mango sauce on my barroom wings. I started to regret it as I dug deeper into the bowl. I just shoveled ’em in to get it over with.

Then I thought, ‘Oh, hell, I’ve got this stupid challenge coming up and I can’t even handle a little routine heat?’ I was hoping to prime the engine, but all I did was remember how much disdain I had for scorched lips.

Suppose all this makes it more fun for you to read? You sadist. Hope you’re happy. I may not be willing to swallow a ghost pepper, but this isn’t going to be enjoyable no matter what.

Then again, I guess that’s the point. If I liked this, it wouldn’t be Scaring Matt.

Up next: Procuring the proper peppers, without wussing out or going too far.