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 toddlers, you know, the ones they used to power with rubber bands? You pull the car back and let it go, it takes off in the opposite direction. But if you push it away, then when you let it go, it comes back to you. How this is true of our motivations to be with desired objects. If I say, “oh, I want you honey, please come here,” and I pull you toward me, wanting you closer, what happens when I let go? How does that love object feel when you keep pulling him toward you? It feels needy, cloying, even manipulative. It doesn’t make them want to come closer, it makes them want to run. So what happens if you say “maybe next time,” or “I’m busy,” or even “I’m not likely to meet your needs”? Think about our little pull-back cars.
Yes, we all get the pleasure-increasing effects of a little teasing, a little flirtation, of keeping some things hidden while showing others. The coquette is a standard literary character, and we’ve all met real life versions. But unrequited love gets substantially more serious. Who knows, it may be an ideal form of love, going back to the origins of chivalry. But it can also lead one’s life down a garden path for years, as enough is hidden to keep one projecting and idealizing a love object, even when one knows, or has even been told by intimates, or the object him or herself, that the odds of this love being consummated are nil. The danger is when those odds are almost nil. How heroic to conquer such odds? How sustaining to continue a quest that can go on for years? Especially if there are hints, or suggestions that all may not be lost. “May be next time.” “I want to give you more.” Or even my absolute favorite “I love you, John Teske,” even if it can never “translate” into something else. I once had such a love. She may have been a borderline personality disorder, and, for eight years I was regularly given affirmations of love, of “you know my heart, despite the absence of evidence.” After going through cycle after cycle of hope and abandonment, I finally realized that, in matters of love, the absence of evidence probably is evidence of absence. In any case, the woman was an inveterate enough liar, who never once kept a promise, even a promise to keep a promise, no matter what she swore on. And while I held out for a long time believing this one thing was true, finally got to the point that I didn’t know whether anything she ever told me was true. I’d actually had other relationships during those years, one of whom told me she thought I they were a form of hiding from myself. The point here is, however, that even denial may actually inflame one’s quest. It’s all about cycles of anticipation, and there may be no absence of drama. Finally, the futility wore me down, and I met someone, my Guinevere, who gave me more of her time, and more of herself in weeks and months than my unrequited dream did in years. I also learned an important lesson, that the anima which one can project on an empty slate, may be one’s own, and may have its redemptive holiness. But it isn’t how to live a life.
No, however much rewiring of the brain to attach anticipatory pleasures to a love object, such that your increasingly elaborated image may provide anticipatory pleasure even in her absence, ultimately, there is no consummation. It takes the thinking brain, the prefrontal cortex, and its ventral connections to the emotional brain, to inhibit those powerful primitive feelings that one really does not want to surrender. Sadder but wiser. The work of Antonio Damasio and others on damage to these areas of the brain provides help in understanding this neural basis. There is a famous “gambling task,” on which one is free to select cards from one of two piles, each containing cards showing wins or losses. In Pile A the winning cards are twice what the winnings are in Pile B, $100 vs $50, but in Pile A the losses are devastating, running from $450 to $1250, whereas in Pile B, they are only $60 to $100.
Normal folks will quickly stop picking cards from Pile A, as the losses are great enough to provide a serious warning. Patients with damage to the frontal cortex may be unable to stop themselves from picking from Pile A. Remember the release of dopamine from the nucleus accumbens is proportional to the size of the reward, but unresponsive to its likelihood. That takes thought, and a real decision not to pursue a highly motivating goal, which, as any addict can tell you, is not easy to do. I have to wonder, of course, how much of my difficulty surrendering my 8 year-long unrequited love was due to its addictive aspects, or to the fact that I was hit by a baseball bat over my right supra-orbital cortex at the end of my first year of high school.
It seems fairer to call the “reward circuit” the “longing circuit,” as it may be as much the neural circuit behind our profound longings, our deepest hopes. That is, after all, a powerful, and can be a valuable human motivation. As Vaclav Havel wrote in his 1990 book Disturbing the Peace:
"Hope is not the same as joy that things are going well, or a willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not because it stands a chance to succeed. The more unpropitious the situation in which we demonstrate hope, the deeper that hope is. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out." (p 181)
You have to love a guy who, in one of his first acts as President of the newly democratic Czech Republic, after a “Velvet Revolution” in which rock and roll music played such a great part, had The Rolling Stones as state guests. Human beings sometimes actually do accomplish things that, however desirable, are not only unlikely, but may take a generation or more to attain. As we have learned, it is not the consummation that provides the neural basis for sustaining such motivations, but the anticipation. Consummatum est.