I get majorly miffed by the notion of a “guilty pleasure.” I mean, why would there be anything shameful about indulging in some small, harmless delight? I say, never feel guilty for feeling good. Pleasure is our God-given right, hardwired into our brains just like perception and emotion. In fact, the ability to experience pleasure is vital to human survival, serving as the inherent reward propelling us to perform vital functions like eating, drinking, sexing, and even socializing. Pleasure’s so much a part of our nature that its consistent absence, anhedonia, is considered to be a core feature of mental illnesses like depression and schizophrenia. Ultimately, experiencing pleasure is part and parcel of being a living, healthy human being on this here spinning sphere in outer space. And, if it doesn’t feel good, you’re probably doing it wrong. So please, take your delights where you find them and leave the guilt out of the equation.
Ever since starting this blog, I’ve put a lot of thought into the mechanisms behind pleasure. And because I tend to enjoy sciencey stuff, and I have a sweet tooth in particular for psychology and neuroscience, I asked myself, just how does the pleasure response function in a normal, healthy adult brain? Oh so very nerdy, I know. Nerdier yet, I was totally stoked to discover, I’m far from being the only one. Neuroscientists at the University of Michigan are extensively researching how pleasure functions in the brain and they’ve discovered that the subject is a lot more complex than once believed.
One thing that’s become clear to Kent Berridge and his team at Michigan, is that there are two main but distinct components of pleasure. The first is “wanting,” and the other is “liking.” Though it’s easy enough to collapse these two concepts (I want the chocolate therefore I like the chocolate), they do in reality function differently in the brain. Given this, it makes sense to look at and study them separately.
But to fully understand in practical terms how liking and wanting are truly separate processes, I’ll give you an example from my own life. Once upon a time, I was a smoker. How this even came to be, I can’t fully explain as I despised the smell and taste of cigarettes. I smoked for several years though, and during that period I tried to quit on numerous occasions. However, every time the craving for another cigarette would reel me back into the cycle. The interesting thing is, despite the relief upon lighting up, the actual experience of smoking was pretty vile. The bitter chemical taste, the mucus at the back of my throat, the smell that lingered in my hair and on my clothes. All of it was actually pretty yuck. But as certain as the sun rising and setting, an hour or two later I’d be sucking back another. So you see, wanting really doesn’t necessitate liking. And, as it turns out, while dopamine is essential to wanting, liking has it’s own unique brain chemical cocktail guiding its process.
Liking is not a localized brain function. Instead, when a pleasure response is triggered, various parts of the brain are activated. These areas are given the awesome moniker “hedonic hotspots,” which for me brings to mind a remote tropical island paradise with pristine beaches, fountains of champagne, and platters of chocolate covered fruit. In actuality though, hedonic hotspots are areas that are part of a larger neural circuit which exhibit a specific set of neurotransmitters interacting. These neurotransmitters (enkephalin and anandamide) are the brain’s equivalent of cannabis and opium, aka, the good stuff. In hedonic hotspots the relation between these brain chemicals is cyclic and self-perpetuating, creating a loop of liking that neurons literally delight in.
The brain’s response to a pleasurable stimulus (to any stimulus really) is experienced by us as instantaneous. A kiss, a caress, sunshine warming the skin, something sweet on the tongue; all of these are paths to a pleasure that we experience within nanoseconds of their occurrence. These paths and others (like the earlier mentioned food and sex) generate opiate like chemicals in the brain and these chemicals in turn trigger a response of liking.
It’s pleasure (defined as liking) that this blog is dedicated to exploring and cataloguing. Sure, desire and wanting can be the impetus that leads to enjoyment, but the experience of delight itself is what I’m most interested in. I mean, I would much rather be eating a piece of chocolate cake than wanting one, wouldn’t you? I thought so.