Who doesn't like pleasure? It is certainly better than pain. But do we need to rely on external stimuli, chemicals, behavioural triggers, or even memories to feel good? In other words, can the brain's pleasure centre be hacked?
First off, what is this pleasure centre within us? For that matter, what is pleasure? Well, we all know what it feels like, from our experiences with food, sex, humour, music, personal achievement, money rewards, parental love, and taking certain chemicals. Take a bite of chocolate, or perhaps a few sips of a hot chocolate drink. As the mixture melts on the tongue notice how awareness narrows, excluding the outer world. There is just that smooth, intense, bitter-sweet-nutty melted moment, accompanied by a rising warm relaxation, perhaps with time, even mild intoxication, a mental buzz, and a general sense of well-being.
This experience is no surprise, given the potent mix of chemicals in cocoa: phenylethylamine (releases endorphins and causes that 'in love' feeling), caffeine (increases alertness), theobromine (similar to caffeine), and a set of unsaturated N-acylethanolamines (that mimic cannabis chemicals).
In general, pleasure is based in anticipation and reward, which shows up as a special pathway of activation in the brain. This biological 'reward system' curves up from the lower base of the brain stem and tracks through a region called the nucleus accumbens (NAc) and into the frontal brain area, roping in oxytocin in the NAc, a chemical that, with dopamine, affects this pathway's activity. Along the way it is joined by the internal opioid system, as well as activity in the adjacent anterior insula. A complicated picture.
There are many ways we manipulate the world around us to deliver pleasure, rather than waiting for it to come to us. Often this involves using something outside the body or beyond the moment; something physical, perhaps a social interaction, or the recall of a memory. The mind effect plays off body stimulation. But do we have to play this game? Could there be another path: a way to hack the system from inside?
Meditation usually involves shedding disruptive feelings, clearing the mind and finding peace and calm, but this is not always the case. Sometimes feelings are an important component of the process.
There is a type of meditation named as ecstatic. Here, altered states of mind involve practitioners experiencing joy, contentment, happiness and peace, but also physical pleasure entwined with bliss, and even the kind of ecstasy compared with orgasm. Intriguingly, this kind of meditation has now been studied using brain imaging and electroencephalogram (EEG).
Altered mind states during meditation often involve feelings of joy or bliss. Jhanas represent specific states. An individual capable of moving through 8 such sequential meditational states (jhanas) agreed to be studied. With this research the team found something quite astonishing. By maintaining a mental focus that excluded external sensory stimuli, this individual seemed able to set up a pleasure feedback loop. External stimuli, such as rhythmical movements, chants, memory recall, or even expectations were not necessary to maintain it.
Imagine feeling like you are opening a gift on a very special day and finding that it is exactly your heart's desire, being immersed in deep joy, or feeling as you would during the best sex you have ever had, all achieved with nothing more than your state of mind. How can this be?
In a calm mind that turns inward, triggering the default mode brain network (see previous blog), away from external sensory awareness, the signal to noise ratio in the brain is boosted. This means that just a tiny shift in brain chemistry makes all the difference. It is like dropping a pin on a tiled floor in total silence when compare with dropping it in a crowded room. It seems so much louder.
But wait a minute, isn't this process likely to be just as addictive as pleasure gained through usual triggers? Perhaps not. Wanting more and never being able to get enough has its roots in overproduction of brain chemicals and biological adaption to such high levels. More of the same is then needed to get something like the same effect. This is exposed in a recent, personal account of addiction provided by neuroscientist, Judith Grisel, in her talks and new book is called Never Enough: The Neuroscience and Experience of Addiction. Meditation though, by using a calm mind and focused attention, releases smaller quantities of the chemicals, and although this can drive short term neurotransmitter depletion there is no evidence of addiction associated with such natural production.
So, it seems that we do not have to dance to the triggers of our environment to achieve pleasure; it does appear possible to hack the brain's pleasure centre. In Design Your Mind: Everyday tools to make every day better, I look further at tools to achieve meditation with ease. In the meantime, there is always chocolate.
Till next time – B.W. Cribb