Nature Doesn't Want Us to Have Too Much Fun
Unrestrained access to pleasure could threaten our survival.
Posted October 25, 2021 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
- The impossibility to experience constant and sustained gratification safely may be the basis of our moralistic approach to pleasure.
- Too much devotion to pleasure will make us neglect more vital but perhaps less immediately gratifying tasks.
A couple of posts ago, we observed that if we are given a choice between happiness and freedom, many claim that they would prefer to remain free, even if this freedom meant they had to carry on suffering.
Personally, I'm not so sure. My scepticism is based on a sneaking suspicion that we profess to prefer our miserable but free human existence because we know that the option to be happy at the price of losing our freedom is not really available. Given that we have to suffer, we may as well try to convince ourselves that this difficult but free life is what we wanted all along. Then there is the issue of freedom, which is really an abstract human construct (a bit like happiness itself), but that's another story.
I promised that in my next post we would explore this issue further, as well as the pleasure mechanisms in the brain and how feeling too much pleasure could threaten our survival.
Constant pleasure isn't a good thing, as a famous experiment by James Olds and Peter Milner demonstrated in the 1950s. They implanted tiny electrodes into the brains of rats that delivered a small electric charge to the pleasure centres deep in the brain whenever the rat pushed a lever. They found that the rat would push the lever thousands of times, so gratified by this strange magical pleasure machine that it forgot to eat or drink and eventually died. If the rats were given a substance to block dopamine, they stopped pushing the lever, which proved that the rodent’s pleasure had been facilitated by this neurotransmitter.
This impossibility to experience constant and sustained gratification safely may be the basis of our moralistic approach to pleasure, which is generally frowned upon by many moral and religious codes. Some passages in the Old Testament, I am reliably told, even condemn culinary experimentation as a type of gluttony and therefore a sinful activity.
Regarding pleasure as a sin may be a way of reminding us that pleasure actually carries with it a certain amount of risk. Too much devotion to any of the carnal joys will make us neglect more vital but perhaps less immediately gratifying tasks. In the Olds and Milner experiment, the rats even stopped eating because they had direct access to the feeling of enjoyment without having to eat to feel it. And it went on and on, as long as they continued pressing the lever.
Nature doesn't want us to have too much fun. But it seems it's for our own good—tough love.