Monday, May 14, 2007

Pleasure vs. Happiness

Louie of Everything is Pointless wants to know why most of us aren't allowed to have a device implanted to directly stimulate our brain's pleasure centers:
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.


CyberKitten said...

Pleasure and happiness are not the same thing. I don't even think that a life of pleasure (even at the touch of a button) is the way to happiness. Happiness is richer than that - or at least should be.

Saying that... touch-button pleasure sounds like... fun. Would it be addictive? Probably. As a species we do seem addicted to our many pleasures don't we. It'll come though - one day soon whether we like it or not.

Anonymous said...

It would keep people from needing people.

Now, people form bonds with other people and help people for the good feeling it causes. If they could press a button to feel good, a lone activity that can't be shared, the greed and selfishness of the world would likely increase.

Think Gollum and his precious.

I see how it can be useful in some cases for people who have a really hard time being happy.

Ben Avuyah said...

Everyone reading this post was holding such a magic button, hopeing that a few well placed clicks might bring them surprise, interest, joy, sadness, or a voyourish peek into someone elses mind...

thanks JA, for supplying the days ration of opiod for the blogospheric masses.

Anonymous said...

I think a button like that would change a lot of things for us. Think of everything in our lives that we learn through positive reinforcement, and it would all go down the drain if a pleasure button would make the phenomenon of pleasure ubiquitous. We wouldn't learn many of the behaviours that keep the fabric of society intact or our lives intact.

Anonymous said...

If the pleasure button made religion obsolete would you feel sorry for God?
With a calloused kiss on the muscles of thought
God a breaded fish who's naked caught.
By the sun of love and the shade of dew
Lick the ache inside the heels above you.

CyberKitten said...

I hardly think that a pleasure button would lead to the downfall of civilisation Intuitor... It would just give people the opportunity to take personal control of the amount of pleasure in their lives.

Baconeater said...

Will people knock off liquor stores in order for a button buzz like they do for crack or heroin?

I don't care if I had one of these buttons, but my life would be much easier if my wife had one:)

jewish philosopher said...

I think this pleasure center thing doesn't work for humans.

Unless, of course, you are clicking on the address of my blog! That's a pleasure center!!

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't want to see such a vision come to pass. I think we all sense that it would diminish our humanity in some way.

But I will observe that masturbation has never stopped people from pursuing sex. I don't mean to focus narrowly on sexual pleasure: I'm suggesting that solitary pleasures are available (drugs are another example) but the drive for human companionship persists.

CyberKitten said...

stephen said: I wouldn't want to see such a vision come to pass. I think we all sense that it would diminish our humanity in some way.

I for one don't think so. Why would it? Is our humanity based on our suffering? I don't think so. Would people stop striving for things because they could give themselves a jolt of pleasure anytime they wished? I doubt it. It might cut down on our other (less healthy) addictions - like booze and other recreational drugs.

Frank said...

JA, this is off topic but Jerry Falwell is dead.

Erachet said...

Wow. This is so fascinating. It sort of reminds me of the book Brave New World. I don't know if you've read it or not, but in that book there is a drug they take in order to be in a good mood, and they also have set times to go see films in order to increase their pleasure. It's been a while since I've read the book so I'm not sure how accurately I'm remembering it, but it was sort of like they kept using different things to make themselves feel pleasure in order to hide all the wrong in the world. So that could be a negative result of having pleasure just a button press away.

Also, it would take away the need to actually do anything anymore. What's the point of doing something fun if you can just have fun by staying at home and pressing a button?

Anonymous said...

I don't think that it would be as bad as we're thinking because not everyone would get a button installed. Many, maybe most people would see the possible pitfalls of the button and treat it like how they treat illegal drugs.

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Mark said...

In Brave New World the drug was called soma, and it is relevant to this point.

Part of the problem is the mis-identification in the modern world equating happiness with pleasure or fun. Until just a generation or two ago and since a long way back before that, happiness was equated with pursuit and perfection of virtue ... which has little to do with stimulation of pleasure centers in the brain. Epicurius who held that there was no purpose in life but we just had the here and now, did not therefore advocate hedonism and the raw pursuit of sensual gratification. Instead moderation was required as pursuits of pleasure in and of itself was logically and practically unsatisfying.

Anonymous said...

I imagine someone with this device just sitting there pushing the button making himself happy beyond belief--until he dies from thirst and starvation because the button made eating and drinking a pointless diversion from true happiness.

Pretty creepy.

Every year, some kid in Korea dies playing videogames because he's so mesmirized by the game he doesn't eat or sleep. So this scenario isn't pure speculation.

Anonymous said...

A certain amount/level of pain is necessary for
an organism to differentiate itself from the environment (limits). Constant pleasure seems to tire out the nervous system- thereby leading to

Anonymous said...

The key is that happiness and pleasure are quite different. Pleasure can be a means to happiness; or it can sidetrack you and keep you from pursuing happiness. There is a certain happiness that comes from love. Sexual pleasure can be an aid to that, or you can spend all your money on toys and keep other people away.

Your choice, but men can do things that plastic cannot, and women can do things that rubber cannot. Men need to stop competing with plastic and women need to stop competing with rubber.

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