What is bliss? What exactly, for that matter, is pleasure?
James Olds was the chemist who first located the brain’s pleasure center, while he was experimenting with rats. He dubbed it our body’s “river of reward.” In her eloquent book, A Natural History of the Senses, author Diane Ackerman describes it this way:
“Like the rest of the body, the river of reward is a strange alloy of electricity and chemicals, and there are various ways to trigger or quiet it artificially, using electrodes or drugs. From the outset, we’ve evolved through a tapestry of rewards, so it shouldn’t surprise us that quiz shows, contests, medals and award-donating programs of every kind dominate our culture, or that addictions are so hard to break.
“Reward, one of the central players in the brain, wears many masks. Like a melody, it can appear in a higher or lower key, at a faster or slower pace, on a wide array of instruments; it can be simple or elaborate, and still be recognizable.”
Hedonism, the quest for pleasure, truly makes the world go round, and it goes much deeper than our obsession with sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and chocolate. Neuroscientists are beginning to understand exactly how our brains give us pleasure, and as a result are starting to believe that the quest for pleasure may underpin every decision we make. It may even be the basic foundation of consciousness.
In the 1960s, psychiatrist Robert Heath of Tulane University in New Orleans attempted to cure his patients’ depression, pain, schizophrenia, suicidal feelings, addiction, and even homosexuality – which in those days was considered a psychiatric disorder – by drowning them out with pleasure, induced by an electrode implanted deep in their brains.
Much was learned from this controversial work, but unfortunately, as soon as the power was cut, the feelings of well-being disappeared and there was no permanent benefit. In fact, later work at the University of Michigan has suggested that the electrodes were filling those patients and rats not with pleasure, but with a subtly different feeling – desire.
Hmm.. Pleasure and desire, longing and ecstasy. Poets and mystics have always known that they were intertwined. Tomorrow, in our quest for our own bliss, we’ll take a closer look.