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Pleasure after Pain?

secaldwe's picture

The notion of human perception is a hot-button issue for me in this course and in my waking life. I am not a philosopher, so I lack the existential vocabulary. I am not a biologist, so there goes any solid physical explanation. I am, however, an English major and I could talk your ear off in metaphor, waxing Romantic about how we elevated sentient beings are different from monkeys and rats and pigs but that’s not the point of this course. The point, at least for this paper, was to set out on my futile expedition to glean meaning from scientific articles using words I hardly know how to pronounce, even with my two requisite years of high school biology. Mission accomplished. I have ended up so far from where I started, I feel like a hobbit on the way to Mordor. So you want to talk perception? It ain’t me, babe. I found my way through a monsoon of articles and journals, asking originally asking “does the creative brain operate in a chemically altered state?”

I touched down on a series of loopy and incomprehensible articles about chemical imbalances and drugs. One caught my eye and gave me a mercifully grounding concept on my hunt: the nucleus accumbens plays a lead role in addictive behavior and pleasure/pain sensory perception. I pursued my inquiries all the way to a fascinating study called “When Your Brain Goes Shopping” published in ScienceNOW. Here I learned about a study conducted to monitor choices people make when shopping weighting “the anticipated pleasure of a purchase against the inevitable ‘pain’ of parting with their money” (Enserink). Jackpot? You ask. Nah. But it was a start. I was able to grasp some key concepts like the utter futility of trying to map the brain when it is constantly changing, among other more intensely biological findings. Turns out, that nucleus accumbens is the starting point in monitoring all different kinds of addictive behaviors – not just narcotics.

I am intrigued now that perception does tie into my findings. In order for a shopper to make a final judgment call on a purchase, they must first perceive the item as a lone artifact. Then the eye moves to the price tag – it’s a narrow focus, a tight zoom, expanding outward conceptually. Once the price has been seen, the shopper perceives surrounding items and the context of their find whereby making a final decision based upon the perceived pros and cons of purchasing said item. I’m not entirely sure where the pain comes – I certainly don’t think about parting with my cash, as long as their money in the bank and I want the thing badly enough. Maybe pain could be translated as guilt in an afterthought. This would make sense – a perception that you chose poorly, having not weighed the consequence. I could deal with that answer.

From my surprise stumble across the MIT/Carnegie Mellon study in ScienceNOW, I asked what vocabulary do I need to further understand this pleasure/pain receptor? Well, a lot it turns out. I went to McGill’s link to a really cool brain diagram on the “pleasure centers.” This was my first encounter with concepts discussed in class last week. (Finally! Words I know.) Not only does the nucleus accumbens operate on “two essential neurotransmitters: dopamine, which promotes desire, and serotonin, whose effects include satiety and inhibition” (McGill) – there is a very close link to the ventral tegmental area (VTA) which introduces buzz-words neuron and axon. According to the good people at McGill, neurons deal dopamine which the axons transport to the nucleus accumbens. Translation: desire comes first which again is based in perception. You must first perceive something in a certain way for it to be desirable. If I see a really hot Post-Bac on Merion Green, I first recognize a) that he is “hot” and b) that “hotness” is desirable. Then I feel desire having perceived him in this light. I think I’m catching on! But wait – there’s more…

My eyes scan the explanations on the McGill page. I catch “perceptions” and begin reading. There’s that region called the amygdala from class one day and all I could think of then was Queen Amidala. But I learn that the amygdala actually conveys positive or negative associations to our perception. It is a key part of this “pleasure circuit” and instrumental in understanding addiction. Fascinating, if not quite what I set out to find. I need to believe that something we discussed on the very first day of class is true, that we do need a total upset in the way we, as humans see ourselves in the context of thinking about the universe. If there’s a portion of the brain that can correlate instantaneous perception with “do it” or “don’t do it,” there’s got to be a way to account for things like belief in a higher power or an afterlife. There must be a mechanism in there somewhere. If drugs can induce crazy trips, we must be hard-wired to take these hallucinatory sojourns in the first place! It blows my mind. Just thinking about the brain in an altered state nearly imitates one.

I suppose the majority of my findings were tangents, but they were valuable tangents. I stumbled across an article from the Harvard Gazette on painkillers and more brain mapping. Some radiology clown thinks her can get a precise measurement of pain felt by chronically suffering patients just with his brain scans. And to that I say, Dude – what about altered perception? They’re already in unstable is they’re in pain. Even I know that. There’s pleasure in suffering and that’s got to show up on your scan screen. I know about the nucleus accumbens now. There may be a “single, subconscious system that responds to a continuum of emotions” (Cromie) but that, to me, sounds like pre-programming.


1. “When Your Brain Goes Shopping”

By Martin Enserink
ScienceNOW Daily News
4 January 2007


3. “Pleasure, pain activate same part of brain: New finding may lead to better painkillers”

By William J. Cromie


Anonymous's picture

i stumbled upon this page

i stumbled upon this page looking for a map of the brain. I was thinking because of the close relationship pain and pleasure have the signals can become crossed which results in sadism. I'm not sure if a reinvented the wheel with that statement.