Hedonic Hotspots and The Science of Pleasure

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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.

Kilkenny Irish Cream Ale: A Go To Beer That’s Smooth And Frothy

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I don’t drink like I used to and I’m rather pleased about that fact. Gone are the days when I could easily polish off a bottle of wine by myself, or down several martinis before going out for the evening and swigging back some more. These days I’m quite content with the occasional indulgence. A glass of prosecco. The odd G&T. A hot toddy on a cold winter’s day. Moderation has become my mantra. And though my twenty-something self would never understand it, it turns out that less is more. I gain far more of a thrill from gingerly nursing a single ounce of 15 year old Glenfiddich (neat, of course) than polishing off a mickey of rye. With age comes wisdom and better tasting whisky. Thank goodness!

More often than not though, when the occasion arises, my libation of choice is a pint of ale. Though I spent the better part of a decade serving the stuff en masse to the public (I waitressed and bartended my way through university and for some time afterwards), my appreciation for a finely crafted beer came only in the last several years. So, I’m still something of a novice when it comes to the vast world of ales and lagers, but not so green that I can’t recognize quality when I taste it.

When I’m at the beer store and I can’t for the life of me decide which of the vast array of micro-brewed goodies I want to take home and try, I’ll opt for a Kilkenny Irish Cream Ale.  I know I can depend on this beer for a deliciously frothy experience that’s finely balanced and silky smooth.

A beautiful dark amber colour, this beer is in fact a red ale that has sparkling clarity and a wide band of shiny head. It comes in a nitro-can, though many Irish themed pubs also serve it on tap. Subtle aromas of malt and caramel dominate the Kilkenny experience, with undertones of yeast and the faintest trace of nutmeg. The mouthfeel is pure awesomeness with a creamy velvety texture and just the right amount of fizz.  Tastewise, faintly sweet caramel-like flavours are balanced by a touch of hopsy bitterness on the finish. Nothing too complex, but charming none the less.

Overall this beer is highly drinkable, perfect for an informal gathering with good friends or by a fire after a day of hiking through the woodlands. But, if you’re anything like me, you may find the absolute best time to enjoy a Kilkenny is on a Friday night, cuddled up next to your sweetheart while watching the latest Pixar pic. Now that’s a pleasure close to perfection!

Kilkenny Fun Facts

  • Kilkenny is owned by Diageo, the same group that owns Guiness and Smithwick’s
  • This beer’s made in the oldest operating brewery in Ireland, St. Francis Abbey Brewery in Kilkenny, where Franciscan monks brewed their own ales in the 14th century.
  • Canada and Australia are the largest importers of Kilkenny.
  • In the 80’s, “Kilkenny”  was used in the North American market as an alternative name for Smithwick’s. Today, Kilkenny is its own beer with a distinct flavor profile from Smithwick’s.

Beans Amandine: Confessions of a Green Bean Fiend

IMG_0254Hubby calls me the Green Bean Fiend, though in truth, “fiend” may be a bit of an understatement. I heart green beans with a passion that’s rivaled by scant few other things. Their mellow sweetness. Their beautiful verdant colour. The satisfying crunch they make. I love them on their own, lightly steamed and clad in nothing at all. But I love them even more with salty roasted almonds and melted butter; in other words, Beans Amandine.

This side-dish was exceedingly en vogue in the 60’s but dwindled in popularity in lieu of the emerging “nouvelle cuisine.” It originates from classic French cuisine, and it’s closest cousins include asparagus amandine and potato amandine.

I’ve seen versions of the classic recipe bastardized by inclusions of blue cheese, garlic, and other such trespassers. Such sacrilege! Why, I ask, would you tamper with perfection? But there I go revealing my biases.

Though green beans are awesome anytime of the year, I do look forward to the summer months when the local farmers markets will re-open and I can again enjoy the freshest locally grown beans possible. You bet your bottom dollar I’ll serve them up amandine, eat them out of a bowl in the sunshine accompanied by a glass of Soave. Ahh, yes. Now that’s a pleasure to be had.

 The Ingredients

  • 1 ½ pounds green beans
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • ¾  cup sliced almonds
  • ¼  teaspoon salt

 The Directions

  1. Steam green beans until just tender and put aside.
  2. Sautee almonds in butter and salt.
  3. Toss almond mixture with green beans in a serving bowl.
  4. Serve hot or at room temperature, as a side-dish or as a salad.
  5. Pair with a Soave or a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

 Green Bean Fun Facts

  • Beans were cultivated as a food source as far back as 6000 BC.
  • They originated in Central America, and slowly spread both North and South of this axis.
  • Christopher Columbus introduced green beans to Europe for the first time in the late 15th century.
  • Originally Green Beans had a fibrous string that ran on the outer curve of the pod. Botanists found a way to remove the string through breeding and in 1894 the        first successful stringless bean plant was cultivated.

The Great Wall of Vagina and Why It Matters

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Not just a clever pun, “The Great Wall of Vagina” is in fact the name of an art installation that collates and presents the vulvae of close to 400 women. Ten large panels featuring plaster casts of the nether regions of ladies from age 18 – 76 has provoked and perplexed spectators from Brighton to Berlin, from London to Milan.  The artist behind the exhibition is a Brit named Jamie McCartney with a degree from Hartford School of Art in the USA. What muse possessed him to create the installment? In an interview with The Argus he says:

For many women their vagina is a source of shame rather than pride and this piece seeks to redress the balance, showing everyone is different, everyone is normal, and everyone is beautiful.

A powerful message at a time when cosmetic enhancement of the labia  (labiaplasty) is swiftly on the rise. And while there may be very valid reasons for some women to undergo such a procedure, many are simply misinformed about their own bodies.

Viewing McCartney’s installation it’s clear to me just how much variation there really is amongst female genitalia. Maybe this will seem corny or strange, but I can’t help but think vulvae are kind of like snowflakes, each one a beautiful shimmering symmetry unto itself. Unique. But the consumption of modern pornography can mislead women (and men too) into believing that the normal proportions of a woman’s lady bits are limited to a small choice sample of cookie-cutter shapes and sizes.

Over one third of all labiaplasties are being done solely to alter the appearance of the vulva. This makes me sad because I believe a mass surge of dissatisfaction about our lady parts (which is perfectly in sync with all the other ways we’re unhappy with our bodies) is entirely at fault. Lack of information and misinformation can make us feel like our snowflakes are freakish anomalies, instead of distinct, glittering formations.

Unlike dudes, dames don’t get the opportunity to slyly scope each other’s goods in restrooms, and mainstream porn presents about as accurate a depiction of the average woman’s body as a teddy bear does of depicting a grizzly. Still, I think it’s only natural to wonder how my honey pot compares to everyone else’s (i.e., am I normal). Sex ed. classes, if you were lucky enough to get them, aren’t much help in this regard either. Those illustrations of genitalia just don’t quite do justice to the ever-varying vajayjay.

The internet can be a useful resource but as with all things web related, you have to know where to look. Unless you care to view dimly amusing memes, or pics of cupcakes and purses, don’t even bother with Google images. Instead you should have a look at NSFW sites like Beautiful Labia and Large Labia Project. Both of these do an awesome job of showcasing a range of vulvae by publishing user submitted photos.

I think it’s a tremendous boon that a project like “The Great Wall of Vagina” not only exists, but also manages to get a fair amount of public attention. Handfuls of women from all around the globe are beginning to realize their vulvae may not be so freakish afterall. Some of their comments about the impact of the exhibition are as follows:

Seeing how unique and lovely every woman is really helped me appreciate and accept the way I look. -Heather, United States

 For years, I have walked about, believing that I am carrying something ugly and unnatural. My vagina was an embarrassing secret that I hated and felt uncomfortable sharing, even with my loving partner. I have been on a clandestine search for images of vaginas that resemble mine – but cartoon slits and tidy porn lips only served to reinforce my fears. My friend showed me your “Great Wall of Vagina” online, and within seconds I was weeping. After Panel 1, I had cried away years of shame and self-loathing. -Shannon, Canada

 I cannot explain how much better I feel about my body. I come from a culture where it is an absolute taboo to even say the word vagina. I had never seen one apart from my own and was under the impression that mine was less than perfect. I now realize how perfect my body is.  -Haritha, India

 Your work has taken the self-loathing, the worry, the shame possibly? out of a very personal body part that we all have. We need to rejoice in, and embrace our differences, stop the self hating behaviour, and just accept ourselves  -Sali, Italy

Still, as much of a difference as “The Great Wall of Vagina” is making for women, I do wonder if it (and a small number of other projects with a similar spirit), are really enough to have the kind of mass impact that’s needed to counteract the negative beliefs so many women have about their genitalia. I don’t know about you but I for one have every intention of teaching my daughter to love all the things about herself that make her unique, including her vulva. And, thanks to McCartney’s work, I’ll have one hell of a teaching aid.

 

Earl Grey Tea: A Daybreak Rite To Savour

IMG_8821As much as I enjoy a strong steaming cup of coffee, most mornings I begin my day with a mug of Twinings Earl Grey. I let the tea steep for a full five minutes (or just a bit longer), and drink it sans milk, sugar, or lemon. Palming the sides of the cup, I’ll inhale deeply, citrus, floral, and earthy notes drifting up to my nose. From the first warm sip to the last tepid drop, the tea is silky, light, and well-rounded. Each swallow is a balance of bergamot, creaminess, and faintly lingering tannins. It’s a brew that demurely beckons and never demands. It’s a brew that whispers, that nudges. And it’s precisely this obliging charm that makes it so perfect at the start of my day. I want to be gently lured, not yanked awake.

Infusing black tea with bergamot oil extracted from the skin of bergamot oranges is what gives us Earl Grey tea. If cornflowers, lemon oil and orange oil are also added to the mixture we get Lady Grey (not my thing but she certainly has her fans). Interestingly, bergamot oil is purported to relieve anxiety when used as aromatherapy so perhaps this has something to with why I find Earl Grey so calming.

The tea is named for Earl Charles Grey, who was Prime Minister of England in the 1830’s. Despite varied romantic tales behind the tea’s moniker, the factual reasons for the naming are undocumented. It seems likely though that the tradition of bergamot infused tea predates the actual label. A couple years back the fine folks at Oxford English Dictionary found a reference to the culinary practice from 1824. It appears that blending actually began as a way to disguise the taste of inferior teas, a far cry from the hoity-toity reputation and practices of later years. My personal suspicion (based purely on wild speculation) is that the naming of the tea was part of a marketing ploy to rebrand and popularize a familiar product.

Today, just about every western tea company has a version of Earl Grey on its roster. Twinings is by far my fave among the more readily available brands. Still, it’s not an exaggeration to say there are hundreds of others and if you ask around, every tea drinker has his or her own brand that they swear complete and unfaltering allegiance to. Those devoted to the Twinings label are proud, staunch, and uncompromising supporters. Or, they were at any rate before the debacle of 2011 when the company had the nerve to alter their recipe. Thousands of consumers were outraged, and many of them lobbied for a return to the original recipe. The general consensus among these folks can be summed up by one consumer who commented, “I cannot describe how awful this new tea tastes. The old award-winning tea was in a completely different league to this foul-tasting dishwater.” Now that’s one Brit with a bee in his bonnet!

Though Twinings ultimately reissued the well-loved blend of Earl Grey, it seems it may have been too little, too late, as many long-time devotees had already switched their allegiances to other brands. But, all titillating tea drama aside, it’s unlikely Twinings, which has been around since the 18th century, is going to sink anytime soon. This is a good thing for me and my early morning practice because ultimately, it’s the small simple joys in life that keep me buoyant when the storms inevitably approach. So come tempest or tornado, bring me a cup of Earl Grey tea at the start of the day and I’ll show you a woman afloat.

Have More Sex (But Not Because You Want To Lose Weight)

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I’m all for more sex. “Pleasure for pleasure’s own sake,” is the edict here after all. And, besides the fact that orgasms are one of life’s greatest feel-good gifts, it’s true that frequently bumping fuzzies can also impart all kinds of health benefits. But if you’re skipping the gym to frolic in bed and hoping to still shed pounds, think again.

It seems like every other week I read another blog post, article, or news report extolling the weight loss benefits of bonking. Lies I tell you, all lies, the latest of which originate from my own neck of the woods here in La Belle Province. A couple days back The Independent published “Sex: A beneficial (and more enjoyable) calorie burning exercise,” an article that summarizes the findings of a study conducted by the University of Quebec. The scientific inquiry measured calories burnt during sex and concluded with the assertion that “sexual activity may potentially be considered, at times, as a significant exercise.” The ambivalent phrasing should be noted, but even more important are the actual numbers attributed to the summation; “energy expenditure during sexual activity appears to be approximately […] 3.6 kCal/min.”

Now, I’m no damn mathematician but even I can do simple arithmetic. Not including foreplay, sex on average lasts about seven minutes (according to Dr. Irwin Goldstein, editor of the Journal of Sexual Medicine). If I dust off my trusty calculator I find that total calories burnt doing the horizontal hustle amount to all of 25.2. In food terms, that’s a cup of cabbage, a third of a grapefruit, or less than a quarter of a granola bar. In other words, you’ll likely burn more calories sneezing than screwing.

Now in all fairness, the University of Quebec study did include foreplay in their measurements and surmised that a total of 85 kCal were burnt by their participants during sex. But, oh yeah, their participants were all young (between the ages of 18 – 35) and healthy (exercised two or more hours a week and didn’t have any major medical issues). Furthermore, according to their own control data, calories burnt on a treadmill at “moderate intensity” were 7.1 per minute. That’s more than double the calories burnt per minute while fornicating. So, please explain to me how getting laid is a “significant” workout?

Sorry folks, but if you actually want to slim down and fit into those old jeans tucked away in your closet, you’ll simply have to get out of bed, wipe the cobwebs off the old treadmill, and get moving. But to hell with those jeans; you’ll be a hundred times happier building up a sweat under the sheets. Besides, post-coital glow looks great on you.

 

Goulash: A Vegetarian Homage to One of My Fave Soups

IMG_8757The first days of 2014 were cold, cold, cold. I live in an old Brownstone where the heat is consistently either jacked up so high you can’t see straight for the sweat dripping into your eyes; or it’s so damned cold icicles form in the corners of rooms. With Montreal temperatures dipping into ungodly depths beneath freezing, the building’s ancient beast of a thermostat was unable to keep up to task, and the homestead was subjected to the latter, nippier scenario. Still, as chilly as it was in the apartment, what was happening outside was far, far worse. So I decided to mind my gratitude, put on an extra sweater and wooly socks, and got to making some goulash.

In truth, what I call goulash isn’t really goulash. It’s more of an homage to the dish, though growing up I ate the real deal more times than I can recall. It was a staple in our house, much like hamburgers and pizza were in the homes of other kids I knew. My Czech parents held on to the bulk of their culinary traditions and so goulash was often on the menu.

My version of the stew came about some time after my 17th birthday, a moment which coincided with the instant I declared to my bemused folks that I wanted to become a vegetarian. I thought they would put up an argument, but instead of attempting to dissuade me, they tolerated what they must have thought would be a short-lived and harmless experiment. Many moons later, they’re seemingly still hoping.

So, my desire to enjoy the same yummy meals I grew up with, without the meat, was the incentive behind the creation of this completely vegetarian version of my mother’s goulash. It took years to get this to where I wanted it, but it’s reached a level of awesomeness now that doesn’t require any further tampering. Cozy, tangy, faintly smoky, and just a little bit spicy. Perfectly snug on those unbearably frosty winter days and nights, so perfect, you almost don’t mind if it stays cold a little bit longer.

The Ingredients

  • 1 package of smoked tofu cut into small cubes
  • 5 – 6 medium sized potatoes cut into smallish cubes
  • 1 large diced onion
  • 3 large green bell pepper cut into squares
  • 2 liters of vegetable stock
  • 75 grams paprika
  • ½ teaspoon cayenne
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil for frying
  • 2 tbsp oil for the roux
  • 2 tbsp flour for the roux

The Directions

  1.  Fry the onions and the peppers in oil until the peppers are soft, about 10 minutes.
  2. Add the paprika and stir. You can add a bit of the stock if needed to prevent the paprika from sticking to the bottom.
  3. Add the potatoes and stir till potatoes are evenly coated with paprika mixture.
  4. Add the vegetable stock, tofu, cayenne, and salt. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat. Cook until potatoes are soft and easily pierced with a fork (About 20 minutes).
  5. Make the roux in a separate pan by thoroughly mixing the flour and oil. Fry at medium heat and stir continuously till golden brown.
  6. Add roux to soup. Serve hot with fresh bread or as is. Pairs well with a pilsner. Enjoy

Goulash Fun Facts

  • Goulash is believed to be derived from Hungary, and today is considered to be one of the national dishes of the country.
  • The word for goulash in Hungarian, gulyás, means “herdsman.” Centuries ago, when Hungarian herdsman would go on long cattle drives they would butcher the weaker cows and make a stew or soup from them. This soup also became known as gulyás.
  • In Czech slang, the word guláš means “mishmash.”