Even as a devout psych enthusiast, I admit that when I hear the word pleasure, my mind instantly goes to Janet Jackson 1986. That pleasure principle video. Hot damn. If you know you know. Thanks Janet for making knee pads cool. It’s been helpful to this middle aged mom learning to skateboard. But in all seriousness, let’s stay here for a second. Much like how the Pleasure Principle video influenced and shaped every single thing that came after it, so too does the pleasure principle in the psychological sense. Pleasure is a base of operation whether in song, or pertaining to the human condition. 

First discussed by Freud, the pleasure principle refers to our primitive drive for survival. Pleasure is the driving force of the id, the part of ourselves that seeks immediate gratification. The id needs. And needs right now. And the pleasure principle strives to fulfill these basic urges so important to our survival like hunger, thirst, and sex. These Id needs occur with immediacy and during infancy mostly elude consciousness. Patience is learned out of necessity. We are born striving for what we need immediately and learn overtime how to meet these needs within reason. Hence the EGO.

What I find so interesting is that while the Id aspect of pleasure, even the evolutionary survival aspect of pleasure, seems so basic. We have a need, that need operates on a survival instinct, when that need is met, we are soothed. But when we look at the neuroscience of pleasure, we see a complex communication between several areas of the brain laying out a system of steps that lead to a pleasure being met. And believe it or not, the start of this system happens long before we actually get what we seek. The starting line is anticipation and motivation. It turns out, pleasure is a linear system. One of wanting, liking and then learning. And these different aspects reside in different parts of the brain. Specifically the orbital frontal cortex, the nucleus accumbens and the ventral pallidum. And these regions are so adept at working together in this pleasure system, that if one area is lacking in response the other will under “normalized” circumstances fill in the gaps. What seems like a basic and direct process, is actually pretty complex. And to go back to Janet Jacskon, she makes it looks so easy, right? 

So where does all this fit in with what we find pleasing? Interestingly enough, a lot of it has to do with outcomes. The progression of wanting, liking, and learning relies on motivation. Our response to our involvement in motivation has a lot to do with outcomes. And here is where the sought out dopamine response comes in. By working through this process of wanting, liking, and learning, we are essentially educating ourselves on what pleasures result in the greatest reward. Even if we do not like the act, we learn to motivate to engage in the activity because it results in a reward that we deem worthwhile. 

An ancient study, but important nonetheless is the work of James Olds and Peter Milner, who in 1950 modified the well known 1930’s Skinner Box experiment where an animal pressed a lever reinforcing either food and or water, or an electric shock. Olds and Milner modified the Skinner Box lever to deliver direct brain stimulation to the pleasure center through implanted electrodes. What they found was that rats would press the level on average 7,000 times per hour. One more time, that’s 7,000 times per hour to stimulate their brains. With further experiments, Olds and Milner discovered that rats preferred the pleasure circuit stimulation over food, even when they were hungry and thirsty. In fact, the experiment was concluded because the rats preferred the pleasure center stimulation so dramatically to food and water had they been left to their own devices they would have starved. This of course points to what we now know about the formidable pleasure center response we have to narcotics and how this pertains to addiction. It feels so good, it upsets survival as the primary driving pleasure principle force. Whoa. 

And while these findings are related to what we find pleasing in our everyday lives like hearing a well liked song or enjoying the perfect cup of coffee they really reinforce just how far we will go to experience any amount of pleasure, especially if we learn that performing task A will lead to a pleasure center response robust enough to engage in the linear path from want to like, to learn. 

For more on PLEASURE listen to JOY IS NOW Episode 61 with Bridget Watson Payne

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