Why Desire Drives Us Wild

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Red CannaWe have often wished we could explain to the makers of the imminent sexual enhancement drugs why such drugs are likely to create bigger problems than they solve. Increasing desire in the short-term doesn't automatically increase satisfaction. Here's an article from Discovery News about research that explains why desire doesn't equate with pleasure - and how this leaves us vulnerable to addiction.

(More commentary below the article.) by Jennifer Viegas [Original article]

Most mammals, including humans, experience moments of overwhelming desire - be it for food, sex or other things - that can be followed by seemingly magical feelings of satisfaction and bliss if the desire is met. But scientists have found that, thanks to brain circuitry, we're often likely to be left wanting rather than satisfied. According to a study recently published in the Journal of Neuroscience, wanting and liking are separate urges in the brain that are controlled by different circuits. When these urges occur in sync, the impact on the brain is very powerful. But there's a catch. Mammal brains appear to have fewer mechanisms for pleasure than they do for desire. Too much"Our results suggest we all are inherently susceptible to wanting more than we'll actually enjoy, at least in certain situations," co-author Kent Berridge told Discovery News. Berridge, a University of Michigan psychology researcher, added, "If separable brain circuits exist for liking and wanting, then a person who had selective activation of the wanting circuit would want more without liking more." Such want/like dissociations can lead to addictions with drugs, sex, food, gambling and more, the researchers believe. Some people also appear to be prone to experiencing the out-of-sync phases. For the study, Berridge and colleague Kyle Smith used a painless microinjection technique to deliver droplets of an opioid drug into a pleasure hotspot within the brains of rats. The drug caused the rats to want to eat three times their normal amount of food - in this case, sugar - while liking it twice as much as usual. The scientists measured the "like" degree in rats by studying their facial expressions and behaviors while they ate. These included lip and paw licking. The researchers then turned off a rat pleasure circuit by microinjecting an opioid suppressant into another part of the rodent’s brain. The rats reacted by still wanting sugar, but exhibited no extra signs of liking it. Finally, the scientists used a technique called Fos mapping, which shows activated portions of the brain based on color changes due to proteins that affect certain neural circuits. This, and the other experiments, revealed the separate want and like "hedonic hotspots" in two areas deep within the brain. Rats, humans and other mammals share these same regions and related circuitry, so rat desire can be comparable to human desire. Morten Kringelbach, a senior research fellow in the Department of Physiology at the University of Oxford, observed that the study includes "a series of elegant experiments." desire pathway"These findings could potentially have wide-ranging implications for the treatment of hedonic disorders including obesity, eating disorders and drug addiction," said Kringelbach, who is also an honorary research associate at Oxford's Department of Psychiatry. He added that the findings raise further questions about how the detected circuitry interacts with other parts of the brain. Both he and the other researchers hope future studies will further examine feelings of desire and pleasure, which, Kingelbach said, are "central to understanding the human condition."

Back to the issue of desire and pleasure. When sexologists report that more testosterone,1 more sex, or sexual enhancement drugs fuel desire, the reward pathway of the human brain says, "Aha! I knew it. That's all I need to know to ensure my happiness." Unfortunately, it's not. Desire is not pleasure, and the single-minded pursuit of short-term pleasure is likely to leave us wanting, or craving (or irritable, needy, dissatisfied, or emotionally detached). Intense pursuit of pleasure backfires. Scientists know that chronically high levels of dopamine (the "craving" neurochemical implicated in sexual desire as well as in all addictions) have long-term effects on the brain. While dopamine is normally associated with feeling good, excess levels are associated with intense cravings, depression, schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and other psychiatric conditions. For example,2

Studies estimate that gay men have about twice the levels of depression than are found in Americans generally. Depression is strongly linked to high-risk behavior, including drug use, alcoholism, and risky sex.

Why this seeming flaw in our design, which allows us to pursue our desires to the point of self-destructiveness? Because evolutionary has honed us to want more than we would enjoy. We're designed to binge on high-calorie foods and store them as fat - because our ancestors didn't have refrigerators. Similarly, we're designed to binge on sexual opportunities when they show up. (Think mating season.) These occasions of "super-abundance" were rare during the millions of years when our brains evolved. Now, we're inundated with both kinds of super-stimulants. We're not equipped to cope with the loud signals coming from the subconscious mammalian brain, which always thinks "more indulgence is better." Evolution is not geared toward genuine enjoyment, healthy equilibrium or satisfaction. It simply preserves the behaviors that cause us to pass on genes (sexual bingeing is one). In other words, from evolution's perspective, pursuing our desires to the point where they make us miserable isn't a flaw in our design...because it gets the "maximum procreation" job done. Now, however, our capacity for indulging our desires is becoming increasingly lethal. Unlike our ancestors during millions of years, we have access to the means to pursue our desires to the point where they become addictions. While it's hard to conceive of sex being a "harmful" addiction, one has only to speak to anyone trying to terminate a porn addiction to understand the truth. Also see Three Myths About Porn. happy coupleEven if sex doesn't become a harmful addiction, the point is that its hungry pursuit may not lead to lasting pleasure. As the article reproduced above points out, quite often the desire and pleasure cycles go out of sync (perhaps due to over-stimulation of the desire cycle), leaving partners discouraged, and, possibly, seeking relief recklessly. The ancient Chinese recognized both the addictiveness of sexual desire, and the way to increase overall pleasure and satisfaction by not over-indulging the desire mechanism of the brain during sex. Although it doesn't seem like it in the short-term, the more we scratch our sexual desire, the more it itches over the days and weeks following exhaustion of sexual desire. This is because intense sexual stimulation sets off a neurochemical cycle of highs and lows. The lows are actually the discomfort of withdrawal which follow the intense over-stimulation of exhausting sexual desire. Our current attempts to exhaust our sexual desire with more orgasms isn't leading to satisfaction, and can risk sexual addiction. A better solution is to learn to use our intimate relationships to achieve greater balance by putting the emphasis on the behaviors that soothe cravings naturally.

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