Brain and body in pursuit of pleasure

By Cliff Taylor

Whether it's sex, chocolate or a watching the All Blacks on a winning streak, there's nothing quite like pleasure. But what drives it, why does it sometimes make us feel guilty and why do we risk so much to pursue it? Cliff Taylor investigates.

Pleasure. We all want it, we all seek it and some of us pay a heavy price to attain it.

From illicit sex and illegal drugs to a crumpet with a cuppa on a cold morning, earthly pleasures make life more interesting, enjoyable or simply more bearable. As Shakespeare sagely observed: "Pleasure and action make the hours seem short."

Auckland sex therapist and relationship psychologist Nic Beets, from Couple Work, knows a thing or two about pleasure. "Basically, it's feeling good about something," he says. "Then it gets more complex. My greatest pleasure? I'm very fond of getting lost in a book."

A book? But surely sex is our primary and most popular form of pleasure? "Absolutely," says Beets. "But it's interesting that sex tends to get divorced from touch. It's about much more than sensual pleasure, it's about meaning."

And in many cases the more illicit or dangerous the sexual encounter, the more intensely pleasurable it can be. "Sexual arousal can be enhanced by anxiety," says Beets.

"Doing something naughty is sexy. Doing it where you might get caught, people find that really arousing.

"To quote Woody Allen, 'Is sex dirty? Only when it's done right."'

For Auckland dance therapist Lizzie Haylock, from Dreambody Dance, the most pleasurable part of her life is helping people to express themselves through physical movement. Just off the plane from Bali, a treat she awards herself every year, Haylock explains that dance is the the purest form of pleasure for her.

"It's the concept of flow, getting so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. People will do it, at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.

"There is so much pleasure to be had but we have to make ourselves aware of it."

Motivational speaker and self-described "joyologist" Pat Armitstead lists public presenting and painting as her greatest pleasures. "I have two peak moments of personal pleasure. I love presenting - when the lights go on, that's just magic. It doesn't even matter who I present to.

"There's joy and pleasure in those small moments of connection. But also, I'm still single and I experience periods of loneliness. But when I'm painting, I don't need anybody. In both there is total absorption - I'm not thinking, 'Oh, I must get a bottle of milk on the way home.'

"We have such a raft of emotions and I believe we are meant to experience them all. Life is a curious mixture of pleasure and pain."

But what few of us ever contemplate in the throes of passion, or while savouring a delicious meal, is where this sensation of pleasure comes from.

David Linden, professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University, Maryland, says it's more about what is between the eyes than between the thighs.

Linden says in his latest book, Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Junk Food, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity and Gambling Feel So Good, that our need for pleasure derives from an unquenchable evolutionary instinct. Despite our relative sophistication, we are merely animals at the mercy of our own brain chemistry.

"The biological value of pleasure is that it makes you want to repeat what you have just done," says Linden. "The obvious reason is that you want food, water and to have sex to survive."

Linden says that a vast range of human activities - from shopping to eating high-calorie foods - trigger the same type of pleasure circuit in the brain, neural signals which converge on a small group of interconnected brain areas called the medial forebrain pleasure circuit. And Linden argues that even such apparently mundane activities as giving to charity - or even paying our taxes - can trigger the same fuzzy chemical buzz.

"If you put different people in a scanner and do tests, what you find is that some people get pleasure from giving to charity and some even when their money is going to something they perceive as a public good.

"It's the same kind of process. If you're in a brain scanner and you have an orgasm or a beer or smoke a cigarette ... all these things will activate the pleasure centres. Vice and virtues can all cause similar things, just different in terms of strength and duration."

Linden says if we are to achieve and control pleasure, as societies and as individuals, "the nexus of the struggle should not be what we do or say but the workings of those neurons deep in our brains".

Psychologist Clifford van Ommen, director of the Centre for Psychology at Auckland's Massey University, is not convinced by this rationale. Pleasure may well be caused by dopamine but it is also entwined with what it is to be human - celebrated and censured, revelled in and regulated by civilisations since Adam and Eve first nibbled forbidden fruit.

"To say that pleasure is a firing circuit is what is called neuroreductionism - all that we are is our brains," says van Ommen.

"What often gets lost in such research is the social aspect of pleasure ... The danger of neuroscience is that it might convince us that we are only complex machines. And that is a social and ethical issue."

Van Ommen asserts that pleasure has much to do with our environment. "Pleasures are specific to times and places. Computer games may be great fun to a Western kid, but mean little to a kid in rural Mongolia."

Where once indulging in opium and laudanum was considered respectable, now they are viewed by the law and mainstream society as dangerous and anti-social drugs. Visiting prostitutes was viewed as a harmless rite of passage for many European men in the 19th century. Now it is deemed shady and sleazy.

Linden writes that there is a strong urge in society to control and regulate pleasure. These are what he describes as society's "dopamine laws".

"You can have sex in this way, but not that way if you pay for it. The notion that tobacco is legal and cannabis is illegal makes no sense at all. We are all subject to strong urges and motivations. There are limits to control. I don't hold with the philosophical or religious view that pleasure is inherently bad."

Van Ommen agrees with Linden that rules apply to pleasure in all cultures. "Certain pleasures may only be enjoyed in certain social relationships, in certain ways and at certain times. Thus the swinger is frowned at, the sadomasochist is labelled a pervert and the drunk at work is soon fired."

Haylock doesn't consider herself to be any sort of wild voluptuary but she is a woman who enjoys life, and that includes the simplest of pleasures such as smelling the fragrance of jasmine while walking down the street.

"It's as pleasurable as going to hear a symphony. It's about remembering that we are bodily creatures. We are animals, not just big brains without bodies which is the way we tend to live our lives.

"We don't live enough in our senses. Pleasure is our absolute birthright."

Haylock agrees there is a cultural context in which pleasure finds its place. She recalls growing up in rural Britain and marvelling at people whistling and singing as they went about their daily lives, for no other reason than it felt good.

Later, she met people who were too work-obsessed to admit to enjoying themselves and political activists for whom pleasure was "anathema".

She recognises there is a certain degree of guilt attached to pleasure-seeking in our society. "I don't think that sort of guilt helps anybody. I lived in Italy for many years and there ain't an awful lot of guilt about pleasure there. They are quite hedonistic, it's great."

Sex therapist Beets agrees there is a measure of guilt associated with pleasure in New Zealand society. "We are less able to stop and smell the roses and enjoy pleasure as a culture.

"We have that pioneering mentality - there's a lot of work that needs doing, let's get on and do it. If you're smelling the roses you're being lazy. And we are bad at talking about sex.

"Usually when people are struggling to derive pleasure from sex it's because there are a whole bunch of meanings imposed on it. If you start thinking you are a defective person you spend any sexual encounter worrying about whether you are going to have an orgasm. You can still have really enjoyable and pleasurable sex without an orgasm."

There is no doubt that pleasure has a dark side. A lust for pleasure and leisure has been blamed for bringing down civilisations. In our own society that dark side is represented by addiction.

Linden addresses addiction squarely in his research. "When we start turning our brains on like Pavlov's dogs, associating pleasure with all the things around us, that's how the dark side, addiction, develops. People start doing it to not feel bad."

Beets says the same principle applies to sex addiction. "Compulsive sexuality is not about the pursuit of pleasure, it's about the avoidance of emotional pain. Tiger Woods might be a sex addict and a pursuer of pleasure, but what you see with that type of person is a lot of insecurity and anxiety."

Linden argues for a more compassionate view of addiction, treating it as a disease rather than criminalising it. And he believes that the evidence of how long-term drug use affects the neural activity of addicts' brains should be exploited to find better ways of treating addiction.

"Understanding the biological basis of pleasure ought to lead us to fundamentally rethink the moral and legal aspects of addiction to drugs, food, sex, and gambling - and to the industries that manipulate these pleasures in the marketplace."

David Linden's Pleasure can be ordered from Unity Books in Auckland ($35).

- Herald on Sunday

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