Can You Die From Too Much Pleasure?

Can You Die From Too Much Pleasure?

“I’m having so much fun I could die” is an expression that you’ve no doubt heard more than once. But is it scientifically possible to experience so much pleasure that our bodies stop functioning, give up, and keel over? We often speak about how much pain a human can handle, but is there a pleasure threshold? And more importantly, are we, as human beings, hard-wired to simply pursue pleasure no matter what the risk? Why do we travel thousands of miles to jump off mountains, swim deep under the ocean, or be chased by an angry bull? Historically, pleasure-seekers have trodden unfamiliar paths leading at times to enlightenment or education, and other times, to electrocution or even extermination. Today, we’ll find out why,  in this episode of the Infographics show – Can You Die from too much pleasure?

Scientifically, pleasure is the release of dopamine. This chemical neurotransmitter is our little messenger between brain cells. It plays a part in how we move, what we eat and drink, and how we learn and generally function as human beings. Dopamine’s purpose is to motivate us to keep doing what we enjoy doing. It is simply the brain’s reward system, and while dopamine is responsible for many positive pursuits such as eating, drinking, exercise, and maintaining healthy relationships, it also has a darker side. Dopamine can be that little devil on your left shoulder whispering less than wholesome demands. These messages can trigger antisocial behavior, such as drug addictions. Some of the weirdest and most wonderful behavior that we can experience, while pleasurable, can also lead to us cashing in our chips earlier than naturally expected and here we find out why.       

Pleasure is an emotion, and while emotions don’t usually kill, they can land us in some dangerous situations. Let’s take an example of a young trainee fighter pilot flying in formation. He’s thousands of feet up in the blue yonder, with five or six other fighter planes to the left, right, in front, and behind him. This is a mean feat by itself. Not only is he putting his own life at risk, but the lives of the other pilots, too. Suddenly the young pilot remembers an old joke. This hilarious episode inexplicably pops into his head, a wide smile crosses his mouth, and he breaks out into uncontrollable, unstoppable laughter. His motor skills have been compromised; the aircraft begins to sway side to side a little. We’ve all had this happen before, but normally in safer surroundings, such as sitting on the bus. The pilot is in a much more dangerous setting and is suffering from a gelastic seizure. His body is exhibiting all the signs of physical pleasure and happiness, and he is subsequently putting not only his own life at risk, but the lives of others too. If he doesn’t regain control of his emotions, soon the whole flight team will be at risk. As this example illustrates, emotions such as happiness or joy don’t kill us, but the physical manifestations of these emotions can.  

Medical research has shown that an overstimulation of the sympathetic nervous system may result in an abnormal heart rhythm or even sudden death from heart failure. Overwhelming grief from a death in the family, or the shock of getting fired, can actually kill you. This is known as Broken Heart or Takotsubo Syndrome. A sudden weakening of the muscular portion of the heart triggered by emotional stress can actually cause our left ventricle to change shape to resemble the shape of a fishing pot (Takotsubo means octopus trap in Japanese.) Studies have shown that although 96% of sufferers of this condition were experiencing negative emotions, some 4% of Takotsubu sufferers were the recipient of recent good news, or experiencing a happy occasion, such as attending a wedding, leading up to their diagnosis. A study in 2011 collected 1,750 cases from 25 hospitals, and they found emotional jolts were responsible for 485 Takotsubo events but some 20 of those cases had experienced a happy occasion prior to their heart attack. This has led researchers to wonder if Takotsubo is not only a Broken Heart Syndrome but also a Happy Heart Syndrome. Perhaps one can die of happiness in this way, but the chances are statistically slim. Generally people who die from pleasure are risk seekers by nature, and their hazardous behavior in pursuit of pleasure is what kills them rather than the emotion itself.    

The French refer to the orgasm as La Petit Mort or the little death. But sometimes the little death can lead to the big sleep. In Thailand, in 2009, Kug Fu and Kill Bill star David Carradine was found dead in a hotel room closet with a cord tied around his neck and his private parts. Thai Police with Sherlock-like skill immediately suspected his death to be the result of a dangerous solo sex practice. And he is not alone. Between 500 to 1000 Americans die each year as a result of cutting off the oxygen to their brain while engaging in acts of solo gratification. Libertine pleasure-seekers don’t just stop at autoerotic-asphyxiation. Investigations have led to the discovery of pleasure seekers found dead after episodes with vacuum-cleaners, frozen sausages, vegetables, and farm vehicles. In 1987, Australian Liberal Party leader, Sir Billy Snedden, was found dead of a heart attack in a hotel room wearing nothing but a latex condom. It was later discovered that he had been entertaining his son’s ex-girlfriend earlier that night. His son, Drew Mackie Forsyth Snedden, later commented “He’d had a number of lady friends around Australia and abroad. He got around a lot.” And what could be more liberal than that?

Then we have those who engage in pleasure seeking pursuits, such as base jumping, free solo climbing, bull running, hang-gliding, scuba diving, and heli-skiing. Since the first climbers of Everest, there had been 219 deaths up until 2011. The United States Parachute Association estimated about 2.6 million jumps were made each year between 2000 and 2010, and over that period, 279 deaths have occurred. Since the activity became popular, 180 base-jumping deaths have occurred, and this death rate has accelerated since the introduction of flying squirrel wing-suits. And you’re not that much safer at sea, with 197 of diving fatalities recorded by the BSAC from 1998 to 2009. And then there are those Dark Tourists who travel to war or disaster zones for adrenaline kicks. And last of all, let us not forget the death-by-selfie phenomena. In the first 8 months of 2016, 73 pleasure seekers died while taking selfies; that’s more than the number of people killed by sharks in the same time period.   

So can you die from too much pleasure? It is very unlikely. The real question is “can you die from pursuing too much pleasure?” And the answer to that question is a resounding yes. Pleasure seekers die in all sorts of ways, so watch out next time you take a selfie.         

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