Saturday, March 29, 2008
Blog: Pleasure Centers
When I was in college I believed in "psychological egoism."
It holds that people always act in their perceived self-interest, even when appearing to do things that are altruistic.
I now reject this view because it's vacuous, unfalsifiable, and for the most part useless.
It is a way to look at human beings, and in one way it's useful: at the brain level, it's probably true. That is, for every action we decide to take, it's probably because of some expected reward.
What's interesting is that it's an expected reward from the brain itself. Let's say you're trying to accomplish something, like raking a lawn. When you accomplish it, you perceive that you've accomplished it. The perception of accomplishment causes a reaction in your brain that gives you pleasure. This pleasure acts as a reward, making acting in a similar way in the future more probable. This is a kind of operant conditioning called "positive reinforcement."
Note, though, that the pleasure comes from a chain of events. You affect the world through your actions, you perceive an accomplishment, and you feel pleasure. The last two steps are completely inside your own brain.
This means that we certainly do not have direct control over the pleasure-giving parts of our brains. If we did, we could just make ourselves feel extraordinary pleasure whenever we wanted to. But we cannot. I can raise my hand at will, or sing a song whenever I want to, but if I want to give myself an enormous surge of pleasure, nope. We have to work to try to make our pleasure centers pleasure us by acting in the world! I find this thought rather startling.
Evolutionarily, this is very important. If we could experience pleasure just by willing it, we probably would not do much else. Imagine, for example, if people could be outfitted with a button on their chest. Whenever this button gets pressed, the person feels an enormous surge of pleasure. Imagine you had the option of getting this button installed in your own chest. Would you do it?
If you hadn't ever asked yourself a question like this before, your initial reaction was probably an enthusiastic "yes!" followed by a more careful consideration of what having such a button would do to your life. Why try to work to accomplish anything if the reward you get for accomplishment can be achieved by just pressing the button on your chest? Indeed, you might imagine yourself just pressing the button all day long. Sound a little like drug addiction? It does to me too. As Marvin Minsky says in his "Society of Mind" book, drugs are a way of feeling like you've accomplished something without actually doing anything. I would not get the button. It does not jibe with my values.
So there is evolutionary pressure to not be able to simply will yourself to feel pleasure. The pleasure-granting system must be outside the control of what we normally think of the "executive controller" in the mind, or indeed any of the decision-making systems we have. Evolution made it hard to get pleasure. Evolution made only certain things give us pleasure: food, sex, warmth, companionship, etc. Those who had to work to feel pleasure were more likely to reproduce.
Certain meditative traditions claim that you can feel elation and joy from long meditative practice. I believe it. But I have to wonder if what they're doing is rewiring their brain so they have a little more control over the pleasure center. I don't want to say too strongly that meditation might be like drug use, but, well, maybe meditation is like drug use. You're feeling pleasure and accomplishing nothing. In fact, not only are you not doing anything, many traditions encourage you to try not to even think about anything.
Other, non-meditative traditions give this the venerable title "wasting time."
I feel similarly about most media. When we feel pleasure from reading, or playing games, or watching movies or plays, we are tricking our minds into thinking what we're seeing is real. It's not real, it's a simulation. Our brains did not evolve to distinguish between movies and real life. You know at a very high level it's just a movie, but much of your brain thinks it's real. If it didn't why would you ever get scared, happy, sad, or turned on by a movie? Indeed, when people are not moved by a story, it's often because it was "unrealistic."
On the other hand, it was a great advantage to our species to be able to learn from stories we heard, so we didn't have to learn everything the hard way. Evolution had a tough job, trying to get us to be able to learn from narratives and watching others while not allowing us to trick our pleasure centers too easily. It sounds like a tricky balance.
It's a little disturbing to think that meditation and reading novels is a little like taking drugs. But it's something I want to watch out for. I have values about productivity, about making the world a better place, and I want to feel pleasure from working toward satisfying these values, and keep an eye on how much pleasure I'm getting just by tricking my mind.
Pictured is someone meditating. Or wasting time, depending on your tradition.