A woman of indeterminate age lies on a narrow cot, a giant bandage covering her skull. At the start of the film she seems locked inside some private vortex of despair. Her face is as blank as her white hospital gown and her voice is a remote, tired monotone.
"Sixty pulses," says a disembodied voice. It belongs to the technician in the next room, who is sending a current to the electrode inside the woman's head. The patient, inside her soundproof cubicle, does not hear him.
Suddenly, she smiles. "Why are you smiling?" asks Dr. Heath, sitting by her bedside.
"I don't know … Are you doing something to me? [Giggles.] I don't usually sit around and laugh at nothing. I must be laughing at something." "One hundred forty," says the offscreen technician.
The patient giggles again, transformed from a stone-faced zombie into a little girl with a secret joke. "What in the hell are you doing?" she asks. "You must be hitting some goody place."
Today, medical technology allows such electrodes to be completely implanted into the human body, including a battery pack the size of a book of matches. But these are a rarity, used only in very specific and extreme cases. Not even victims of intractable neuropathic pain or depression are permitted to have their pleasure centers wired. Individuals with happiness deficits are instead treated with drugs, which are both more and less invasive, depending on how you look at it. Medications don't involve holes drilled into the skull, but they do act upon the entire body, causing a host of unwanted chemical side-effects. Often they also result in a lifelong expense.
Some bioethicists feel that ESB technology should be made available to everyone, protected by the "pursuit of happiness" clause in the Declaration of Independence. Are there dangers in having euphoria just a click away, all the time? Would it be bad thing to have intense orgasmic pleasure at the push of a button?
It seems clear that the pleasure center of the brain evolved to guide our actions and to motivate us, by rewarding us when we do well. This is evidenced by the fact that the primary activity that living things have evolved to do– to mate and reproduce– brings more pleasure than any other natural means (of course I'm referring to the mating part). Therefore, it may be that a pleasure-giving device would detract from our ambition and good judgment. Some people also worry that individuals who are raised without unhappiness and heartache would lack the "character" that makes us human. There is also the concern that most rewards decline in value after prolonged exposure, and some claim that this sort of technology would slowly erode a person's ability to feel good.
But these are all guesses, there is no way to know for certain how a human might change in response to such technology. One could also point out that many people never tire of other stimulations such as sex or pleasurable foods, and that while many people will naturally partake of those pleasurable activities a lot at first, most will gradually moderate the usage to times when it is most needed or appropriate. But nothing would stop an ESB-wired person from taking a day off work, putting a brick on the button, and enjoying an afternoon of bliss. As an added benefit over sex and chocolate, this technology isn't likely to result in unwanted pregnancies, disease, or weight gain.
From a philosophical perspective, the existence of such technology is fascinating. For the first time in human history, we can call hedonism's bluff, as it were. Some would, no doubt, accept such a machine and stimulate themselves for the rest of their lives. Perhaps in some of my darker moments, I'd be tempted as well.
There's something unsatisfying about the idea of pure pleasure on demand, though. I'm no puritan, but the kind of pleasure offered by this machine seems shallower than the happiness that we can sometimes achieve the old-fashioned way -- happiness that includes within it notes of sorrow and pain the way chocolate includes the bitter and the sweet, sex combines tension with release, and great movies make us laugh and cry.
Of course, scientists could eventually create a device which perfectly mimics the experience of a life perfectly lived. What if I could feel at the touch of a button the complete inner experience of a person at the top of the world, whether that person is a grandfather surrounded by family or the man currently having the best sex in the world? Is a perfect life experienced artificially better than an imperfect one honestly lived?
There are obviously a lot of implications in this line of thought as to how we should lead our lives. I'm fascinated to hear everybody's comments.