THE NEUROSCIENCE OF Pleasure
What is pleasure?
“All else appears aglow in its light.”
– Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Of the many definitions of pleasure, the most common either juxtapose the sensation with its supposed opposite, pain, or encompass feel good emotions like joy and happiness. But pleasure and happiness aren’t quite the same thing. In contemporary philosophical and psychological thought, pleasure is believed to be a biological phenomenon that enhances a single, present experience. Its goodness and attractiveness are akin to a magnetic pull that lures us closer, at times edging on hedonism, to whatever we desire to have or feel.
Rejecting standard paradigms of sensation, pleasure is in a category all its own. There is potential pleasure or pain to be found in the igniting of any or all of our senses. Let’s take touch for example: a particular person or social situation can determine whether the sensation of touch brings about great distress or immense pleasure. The smell of vanilla can be soothing for many, while others may find its aroma reminiscent of childhood or sickeningly sweet.
Modern science offers some fascinating insights into how pleasure impacts our brain, categorizing the different types of pleasure for more thoughtful assessments of each. Building on our February theme—Mood, Love and Pleasure—we’re taking a closer look at what pleasure means for our minds and bodies, how to seek it out in healthy ways, and what habits are likely to bring about pleasure for us as we navigate the road to self-love and acceptance
Different Types of Pleasure
Of course, we’re all familiar with sensual pleasures like food, which is part of a “unity of pleasure” whose reward system that also encompasses sex and higher-order stimuli like money and music as far as our brains are concerned. Deemed fundamental to our survival, “these basic stimuli take priority in resource allocation,” according to a scientific study in Flavour. While we’re on the topic of sexual pleasure, The World Association for Sexual Health declares that “the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences free of discrimination, coercion, and violence is a fundamental part of well-being for all.”
That pleasure should be our birthright is becoming more widely accepted, especially in literature seeking to uplift marginalized communities who have traditionally been denied more pleasurable experiences. In honor of Black History Month, see our reading list below for diverse works by Black writers from past to present, which boldly celebrate all types of pleasure.
While there’s a wide world of pleasure theory out there, we’re also fans of Sally Kempton’s yogic lens when it comes to investigating pleasure. In addition to sensual pleasures, Kempton highlights the split in yoga traditions on the subject, citing a verse in the Katha Upanishad: “Both the good and the pleasurable approach a person. The wise choose the good over the pleasurable.” The author further zooms in on different pleasures, such as those that come from absorbing oneself in meaningful work, inspiration and creativity, pure spirit, and what she calls “full immersion”. This type of pleasure, she explains, can be infused with the liberation that being free of the ego brings.
Whatever the pleasure source, the “true Self” can be deeply immersed in the experience without the separation created by the “ego Self”. Connecting her own beliefs to those of Tantric yogis, Kempton urges us to tap into the “true source of all pleasure” … the Self. Within the core of each individual is a sacred joy we can reach by attuning our awareness inward, rather than seeking only external pleasures to bring us enjoyment.
How Pleasure Affects the Brain
Researchers Irving Biederman (USC) and Edward Vessel (NYU) say that our “infovore” nature, the innate appetite human beings have for information, is the impetus for stimulating the brain’s perception and cognition, leading to associations with previous, pleasurable experiences. Their theory is that “infovore behavior is only activated when other motives are not engaged.” What Biederman and Vessel refer to as “infovorous instincts” are thought to take a back seat when other needs are being satisfied or pursued. This infovore system may be less active when humans are seeking food, avoiding danger, or are engaged in other goal-oriented habits, for example. While the information we’re acquiring might not have an immediate function, the researchers say this causes the brain’s reward network to be lit up by its natural opioids. Their infovore model focuses on the brain’s visual system, with implications for other senses.
The Compass of Pleasure author and professor of neuroscience David J. Linden takes a different approach to this pleasure-reward domino effect on the brain. Citing human and animal experiments, Linden writes: “most experiences in our lives that we find transcendent [...] activate the pleasure circuit in the brain [and] evoke neural signals that converge on a dopamine-using pleasure circuitry,” which can also be co-opted by psychoactive substances, writes the scholar. “Evolution has, in effect,” says Linden, “hardwired us to catch a pleasure buzz from a wide variety of substances and experiences.”
When we look at the infovore system theory versus this pleasure buzz effect, we see what is most debated among scientists and philosophers. Is the brain responding to receiving or actively seeking pleasure, or both? If we bring Kempton’s yogic lens into the fold, we realize the complex variety of factors that influence activation in the brain—from external stimuli like psychedelics and sexual activity to inward reflection and peaceful stillness—continue to make pleasure one of the most fascinating and elusive topics.
But, why are human beings hardwired to seek out dopamine?
Many argue that pleasure is one of the most rewarding sensory, emotional, and chemical experiences we can have in life. Our brain is constantly releasing chemical messengers that filter throughout the nervous system and other areas of the body, which is what we may feel when we understand we are having an overall sensory experience.
Dopamine, the messenger of pleasure responses, significantly influences brain function in many ways. In particular, it affects the nucleus accumbens, a.k.a. the brain’s “reward center”. Reward and pleasure are both such powerful brain stimulators because they dictate how our memories are stored and structured. Dopamine is not only a pleasure creator, it’s also a pleasure regulator. That means it can reach the midbrain, which is better known as the “survival center” of the brain. If you’ve ever wondered why addictions are such hard things to kick, it’s because dopamine can signal to the brain that these pleasurable feelings and resulting rewards are part of our very survival.
Here are three key ways the brain and pleasure can interact.
1. We expect a pleasurable reward even before we act.
A deep memory-sensory association is created whenever our brain begins to anticipate the reward that follows a pleasurable experience, sensation, or moment.
2. We anticipate how rewarding a pleasurable experience will be.
Chemicals in the brain form their strongest connections when we have a dopamine-created pleasurable memory. The term “euphoric recall” details how reliving our memories can trigger chemical associations linking pleasure and reward in the brain.
3. We crave seeking out a particular pleasurable experience.
On the dangerous end of the pleasure-reward loop that cycles through our brains and all the networks its messengers reach is addictive, dependent behavior. For those who rely on external substances to “feel good”, the brain can create obsessive cravings and even physical symptoms to try to feed the needs it has come to associate with pleasure and its subsequent rewards.
The Fine Line Between Pleasure and Pain
Throughout history, pain and pleasure have been regarded as opposites, though both equally revered as powerful behavioral drivers in their own right. Oxford University researchers Siri Leknes and Irence Tracey point to emerging data that consider the “mutually inhibitory effects that pain and reward processing have on each other.” One especially intriguing connection Leknes and Tracey discuss is the evidence of “pleasure-related analgesia”. Pleasant odors or music, enjoyable food or images and sexual behavior all exhibited the ability to decrease pain. Similarly, there’s even more research being published about “placebo analgesia”, which means that if we expect something to work (a course of treatment or action to address health issues, for example) our brain’s “reward expectation” networks can be activated.
See our post about the neuroscience of visualization to learn more about how to harness this incredible power.
But what’s even more interesting is what happens in the absence of expectation: when subjects in one study were not expecting to receive pain-relieving drugs, the resulting analgesic effects were reported to be “significantly reduced”. A key takeaway here is that the brain’s expectation of “reduced pain” or perceived pleasure may produce similar effects, bumping reduced pain up in the reward value system over more pain or unchanged pain levels. On the extreme end of this spectrum is your psychology word of the day: anhedonia, or the term describing the condition categorized by a person’s inability to experience pleasure. A great comorbidity between chronic pain and depression has been extensively documented, as those who suffer from chronic pain have difficulty enjoying daily pleasures.
Let’s pause to examine what this all means for our overall wellness.
Here’s an example of an unhealthy cycle of suffering:
Less Pleasure → Negative Mood → More Pain → Negative Mood → Anhedonia
Here’s an example of a healthy cycle of enjoyment:
Find Pleasure in Everyday Things → Positive Mood → Less Pain → Positive Mood → Ability to Create Memories + Produce Dopamine to “Reward” Brain → Enjoy Simple Pleasures
When we see pleasure and pain not as opposites but as part of cycles that we contribute to creating or perpetuating, we can recall how similar processes happen between your “second brain” (gut) and your “big brain”. All of these feedback loops are built-in tools for optimal health, they encode psychological and physiological cues, and we would be wise to spend some time listening to the messages our brains and bodies are constantly sending back and forth.
Stress, chronic pain, depression, sleeplessness … These conditions can lead to intense suffering and even deaths. Could many of these and related health challenges be alleviated or soothed by the pursuit and enjoyment of life’s simplest daily pleasures? Can we reprogram our ways of thinking about pleasure and pain, so that we’re not chasing one and avoiding the other, but rather recentering our own mental powers with the reward center of the brain in mind?
UNC professor of African and American and African Diaspora studies and author of See Me Naked: Black Women Defining Pleasure during the Interwar Era Tara T. Green reminds us: “Black women lead in deaths caused by heart disease, stroke, and breast cancer.” Included in our Black Voices Pleasure Reading List is one of Green’s recommended texts about “pursuing pleasure as a feminist quest to care for ourselves” (Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s diary). We hope you enjoy this love offering, rooted in our admiration for these great writers whose works have touched many hearts and minds, and yet remain relegated to the “One Black Writer” you might hear about in mainstream roundups. We’re intentionally including cross-cultural and interdisciplinary perspectives in this month’s focus on mood, love and pleasure because we believe every human being deserves to experience the healing powers of pleasure.
Follow @animamundiherbals for even more about pleasure … coming soon!