There was a wonderful advertisement a couple of decades ago for some brand of ketchup, which showed someone holding a ketchup bottle, waiting as one must, for the ketchup to slowly start emerging from the bottle. The background music was Carly Simon’s wonderful song “Anticipation.” It says a lot about the nature of pleasure, more than half of which isn’t so much about actual consummation, but about the anticipation thereof. We can anticipate desired ends, desired pleasures, for a long time before obtaining them, the anticipation of which is a good part of what motivates our persistence in their pursuit. In terms of what proportion of our time is spent in anticipation rather than often brief consummation, the latter probably wins. In the context of our Biblical three score and ten years, it is probably only exceeded by our memories of them, but then, as I have suggested, even memory may depend heavily upon putting things in the story form, which requires anticipated or desired ends, and the obstacles or barriers the overcoming of which constitute the drama, the tension, the plot of the story, and, hence, in all likelihood, our ability to remember and retell them, to ourselves or others.
So let’s talk about the pleasures themselves. We’ll need to turn, as often, first to the neuropsychology which is a necessary, if only proper part, of such experiences, also embedded within our social interdependencies, our culture, and the histories and mythologies by which we ultimately make sense and find longer-lasting value. One of the first things I learned as a student of psychology was a classic study (Olds, 1958) about the so-called “pleasure center,” located in the medial forebrain bundle, near the tiny hypothalamus, the governing center for what are called the “Four Fs” of the motivations we share with the rest of the mammalian kingdom: “Feeding, Fleeing, Fighting, and Reproductive Behavior.” Pause for effect. Are you paying attention? Anyhow, in the research involved placing electrodes in this “pleasure center” which rats can self-stimulate by pressing a bar. They prefer to do this to eating. Male rats prefer pressing the bar over copulating with a female rat in heat, presenting in “lordosis.” They’ll press the bar until they pass out, then start again when they awaken. Sounds pretty motivating.
Yes, but does it really seem like “pleasure”? While one does need to worry about anthropomorphizing the experience of a rat it is, after all a mammalian cousin, and it doesn’t look much like, well, fun. I always thought fun was a lot more like play. Even rats can be playful, at least in infancy, and it is the rats that don’t have peers to play with when they are young which are the ones that have reproductive difficulties later on, particularly with copulatory behavior (remember the fourth “F”?). I remember with some delight, the couple who my college girlfriend and I would hear in the adjacent room. We always knew when they were “doing it,” because there would be a lot of laughter. I learned to understand sexual behavior as the pre-eminent form of adult play. It’s kind of hard to do that if you just think of it as dirty. Maybe it’s easier if you just think of it as naughty. Nevertheless, it always saddened me when college boys made it seem like a job, or maybe worse, a competitive sport, but I guess that can be fun, too, but maybe less so for their partners. I remember what Gore Vidal once said, that he thought it odd that the highest expression of male sexuality in our culture was not giving pleasure to women (or anyone), but in watching other men compete in sports, and then spend a lot of time talking and getting excited about same.
In any case, our poor rats don’t seem to be getting much pleasure, at least they don’t seem to be having much fun. In fact, they look a lot more like your, or your boyfriend’s, college roommate obsessed with reaching yet another level in his newest video game. This may be about motivation. But it is more like addiction than pleasure. We talked last week, in Face Your Fears (www.Neuromyth.com blog of 1.3.2018), about the processes involved in the addictive possibilities of what was initially pleasurable. Maybe it should be called the “obsession center” rather than the “pleasure center.”
There is another whole circuit of the brain, involving the neurotransmitter Dopamine (abbreviated “DA”), called the “reward circuit,” which is activated when a reward is on the way. There is enhanced release of dopamine in a structure deep in the brain called the Nucleus Accumbens (located in the base of the forebrain, the front part of the cortex, and a few inches in front of the hypothalamus). What is important here is neither this name or its location, but the fact that dopamine gets released by this structure both during, but also in anticipation of a whole bunch of different rewards, including drugs, sex, gambling and video games. Cells in this Nucleus learn about events that predict rewards. Brain imaging shows activity here for eating chocolate, having eye-contact with an attractive person, humor, and even hearing your musical faves. But there is a big difference between anticipation and consummation.
The reward circuit is active in anticipation but quiets down in consummation! For example, it will be more active at the first offer of chocolate, but not after consuming it. Where it gets really interesting is if you show people a cue about a potential reward, indicating both its amount and its likelihood, activity in the nucleus accumbens goes up proportional to the magnitude of possible reward, but shows no response to possible loss, and it is only the pre-frontal cortex, that part way in the front of the brain where the thinking gets done, that responds to the actual probability of the reward. Now, it is true that all sorts of addictive substances are going to increase DA levels, but with too much over time, you actually lose some of the DA receptors, so normal activities aren’t as pleasurable, and you need more of the substances to get the same effect. Addicts, including that insidious addiction to the feeling of control and one gets from starvation in eating disorders, result in lower amounts of dopamine even long after “recovery” (in the case of eating disorders, as long as ten years later). But also activities like gambling, shopping, playing video games, and sex all increase DA in anticipation, so activities that keep increasing your level of anticipation, like the next level of a video game, are particularly addictive, even without consummation. And again, because it is the level of DA production in the nucleus accumbens is tied to the size of the reward, not its likelihood, the bigger the anticipated reward the more motivated you will be to continue seeking it. Even if it won’t happen in this lifetime. The perils of unrequited love.
There is a simple lesson here about human motivation, and it is about teasing, about playing “hard to get,” as these things can increase motivation. When teaching a course on Emotion, I would take a bag of little toy “pull-back cars”for to