Saturday, November 07, 2009

You only think you like it

An ever-increasing range of behaviors - shopping at outlet malls, eating fried foods - are constantly being classified alongside the usual canon (alcohol, tobacco, and the hard drugs) as not just 'enjoyable to certain people', but as something far more serious: they are responsible for stimulating the pleasure centers in your brain. Neurotransmitters are, it seems, involved. This is serious.

Wholesome undertakings - exercise, helping old ladies cross the street - are also periodically declared to not only be good, but to stimulate the bits of the brain that make us happy. But when the act in question is one we ought not to like, the brain chemistry is presented as somehow sinister. There is on the one hand what we actually like, and on the other what our brains are tricking us into thinking we do. As though on some fundamental level, we would all prefer a lifestyle of locavore Mormonism, if only some mix of peer pressure and sneaky neuron behavior did not fool us into believing otherwise. As if there were a more authentic form of enjoyment beyond what's known or will soon enough be known about brain chemistry.

9 comments:

Paul Gowder said...

I think you give this line of reasoning short shrift. Surely there is something more authentic about kinds of enjoyment that really represent your character and the preferences you've developed over a full life than the forms of enjoyment that simply press chemical buttons.

In the extreme, suppose that we could just wire up our brains to machines that directly sent jolts of pleasure. (Or Nozick's experience machine, whev.) Would you really endorse that kind of pleasure over, say, the pleasure of eating your favorite food or listening to your favorite music or engaging in sexual activity of choice with partner of choice? Even if the machine were built to generate more intense pleasure than any of those activities?

Anonymous said...

Paul Gowder,
Would the preference for "pleasures developed over a full life" have to do with a certain pride in one's taste? There's no connoisseurship in a jolt from a machine, no matter how pleasurable, if everyone gets the same pleasure from it. So are you saying there is additional pleasure in a kind of elitism--or at least, idiosyncrasy--of distinctions? Pride, then, as and at the source of pleasure?
--E.H.

Paul Gowder said...

Pah, pride doesn't enter into it. Rather, it's about the use of our distinctively human capacities. We're a species that reasons and develops our own characters and personalities. (If we want to be existentialist about it, we can say things like "existence precedes essence.") It's one of the ways that we add meaning to our lives.

Do you disagree that that's something we value, and that can be a source of pleasure as we express the lives we've created for ourselves?

Phoebe said...

I never said all pleasures were equal in terms of how you might value them according to whichever frameworks - moral, intellectual, whatever. But do you really think the 'push-button' pleasure from a drug (legal or otherwise) involves brain chemistry, whereas that from some more individual-specific or species-specific activity does not? The same person might get pleasure both from reading a good book and from pushing someone out of the way to make it into a subway car on time - no one would say those pleasures are equal, but they're still both pleasures of some kind; to tell such a person that he authentically likes the book, but only thinks he likes the shoving, is just inaccurate. He does like both. This is not, however, the same as saying he should engage in both.

My original point here, however, was that it makes no sense to say that the only things we really find enjoyable are the ones that happen to line up with contemporary mores and notions of health, and that anything that contradicts these we only imagine we enjoy. Yet this is how things are regularly presented - we are imagined to all really like wild seafood over farmed, free-range over McNuggets; if we prefer the taste of the 'bad' food to the 'good', it's that we only think we prefer it. I'd be fine with saying that there are good reasons to train ourselves to prefer something healthy/sustainable to something else, but to say we all fundamentally do prefer the 'good' option just rings false.

Petey said...

"My original point here, however, was that it makes no sense to say that the only things we really find enjoyable are the ones that happen to line up with contemporary mores and notions of health, and that anything that contradicts these we only imagine we enjoy."

You fundamentally misunderstand the issue here, as you do whenever you discuss this topic.

I authentically enjoy broccoli rabe sauteed in olive oil and garlic.

I also authentically enjoy cocaine.

However, I know that I enjoy my life more fully if I indulge in certain authentic pleasures and don't indulge in other authentic pleasures.

A well lived life is one where you cultivate certain pleasures and weed out other pleasures. This is generally known as developing a discriminating palette. The fact of whether or not something produces immediate gratification or not is somewhat irrelevant to the topic.

Being fully human is the art of using your conscious mind to cultivate the garden of your habits. This is the aspect of "European" behavior that you find so incomprehensible.

Broccoli rabe and cocaine both stimulate the pleasure centers in my brain. Neurotransmitters are, it seems, involved. But the process is "sinister" in one case and not "sinister" in the other because that's the decision I've made in my conscious mind. Is this really so baffling?

repte said...

FWIW, you ought to actually read the Kessler book. It's a quite good book that is of general interest, and actually reading it might clear up some of your confusion about the zeitgeist.

Phoebe said...

Petey,

You, in turn, keep misunderstanding my argument. I never said it's wrong to rationally prefer one pleasure or another, just that I don't appreciate the line of thought that says we really like certain things, and that we only neurotransmitter-like others.

repte (re-Petey?) I've heard some endless interview on NPR with Kessler, and in my vast experience of such matters, what's in the NPR interview is close enough to what's in the book. If I ever research this more extensively, I'll have a look.

Petey said...

"repte (re-Petey?)"

Actually just the captcha phrase that I accidentally retyped into the name field. But your interpretation is better than the reality.

"I've heard some endless interview on NPR with Kessler, and in my vast experience of such matters, what's in the NPR interview is close enough to what's in the book."

Meh. The map is not the territory and the interview is never the book. The book itself is a quite good read. And again, it is of great general interest even to those not specifically interested in researching the topic.

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"I don't appreciate the line of thought that says we really like certain things, and that we only neurotransmitter-like others."

But, of course, this strawman is where you always fundamentally misunderstand the topic.

No one other than idiots or strawmen are saying that a desire for broccoli rabe is genuine and a desire for cocaine is non-genuine. To say it another way, no one other than idiots or strawmen are saying that one is "really like" and one is "neurotransmitter like".

What folks are saying is that there are certain hard-wired instant gratification mechanisms which are highly prone to addictive-style behavior that, to take the food example at hand, mass-market food corporations have been consciously trying to engineer their products to fulfill for decades. And that it would be wise for the wider population to be aware of these mechanisms, given that approximately 97% of the American public is now morbidly obese.

Along highly similar lines, the foundations of the traditional Mediterranean diet and eating habits that you like to mock are designed to satisfy the human body by other means than stuffing it silly with calories, which is why they hold such fascination during the current moment.

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You would find the whole line of thought far less annoying if you actually understood said line of thought, which is why I recommend the Kessler book to you.

Phoebe said...

How about this: I don't think this is a straw-man situation, and really do think evidence about neurons and whatnot is presented differently when it's about a 'good' or 'complex' or 'human-specific' behavior than when it's about fried lard or cocaine. But I don't have time to research this further at the moment.