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This Scientist Stung Himself With Dozens Of Insects Because No One Else Would

“They have really won the psychological warfare game over us.”


On What’s The Point, we often talk to people who are trying to gather data and build cohesive information in a new field. This week’s show is about that, but it’s also unlike any conversation I’ve had so far. Dr. Justin Schmidt, an entomologist, is obsessed with trying to codify the pain associated with various stinging insects. And the only way Schmidt has found to gather his data is by stinging himself, over and over, with more than 80 insects so far. His new book, “The Sting of the Wild,” chronicles that process.

The Schmidt Pain Index, as its informally known, runs from 1-4. The common honey bee serves as its anchor point, a solid 2. At the top end of the scale lie the bullet ant and the tarantula hawk (which is neither a tarantula nor a hawk; it’s a wasp).

Schmidt isn’t just measuring raw pain levels as he feels it, but also incorporating more subjective information into his data set. The honey bee sting is, as he writes, like “a flaming match head lands on your arm and is quenched first with lye and then sulfuric acid,” while a harvester ant produces “waves of deep, throbbing visceral pain.”

With all the stinging, Schmidt hopes not just to build a body of knowledge within entomology but also help us come closer to understanding what pain is and how to treat it.

Stream or download the full episode above, or subscribe using your favorite podcast app. Below, transcripts of a few highlights from the conversation, and a video showing Justin Schmidt at work.

What is pain?

Justin Schmidt: I view pain as the body’s indication that damage has occurred, is occurring or is about to occur. In other words, it’s really a warning. Pain in itself is not damage. You could say, to a certain extent, it’s a signal that is suitable for being “cheated,” which is what stinging insects do. They make this intense pain with their sting, which is cheating.

The amount of pain that you get in, say, a honey bee sting, is like putting your hand on a glowing red burner of a stove. But that does serious damage, and a honey bee doesn’t do any damage at all. You get a little swelling … maybe some itching, but you’re none the worse. You don’t have skin falling off or scars or real damage.

So it’s kind of cheating. It’s making you think that something really serious is happening to you. And yet it hasn’t. They’ve really won the psychological warfare game over us.

Our language for pain falls short

Jody Avirgan: We’ve been discussing how hard it is to discuss pain. I wonder if you feel there are implications there for the fact that there’s a growing crisis of addiction to pain medicine in this country. Does the fact that we don’t have reliable language play a part in that?

Schmidt: Exactly. That’s a real problem. We don’t have reliable language. Think of colors. We have hundreds of different names for different hues and tints. But there are just a very few words we use to describe pain. And it has to do with how we measure and how we quantify different kinds of pain and intensity and flavors of pain, so to speak. We don’t have good terms for either one of those.

I try to use “piercing” vs. “burning” and combine that with the 1-4 [scale] to give you intensity. But it’s really rather primitive, in retrospect. And it’s kind of a disappointment. I think [that] causes the medical profession a lot of trouble, because if you can’t precisely define something, it’s awfully hard to treat it.

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Jody Avirgan hosts and produces podcasts for FiveThirtyEight.