Fierce Excerpts: Lusting while loathing

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Now Reading | The Science of Craving by Amy Fleming

Amy Fleming attended the Society for Neuroscience’s annual meeting where Dr. Kent Berridge, of the University of Michigan, presented his pioneering research into pleasure and desire. Her article is very long and detailed but I found the topic incredibly interesting. I have pulled out 6 main excerpts below:

She writes: 

For almost three decades, Dr. Berridge has swum against the tide of established thinking, to map the brain mechanics of the reward system – the part of the brain that lights up on scans when people enjoy something, whether it’s cake, snogging, heroin or Facebook. It has been a long and winding journey, featuring cameos from Iggy Pop and the Dalai Lama, and a supporting cast of hedonistic lab rats.

Flemings writes that a team at Stanford University have found that if we don’t get something we want, we desire it more while liking it less. For their 2010 study entitled “Lusting while Loathing”, 60 participants were recruited online to test (they were told as a cover story) new gaming and payment systems, with the chance to win prizes. Some of them won prizes, while others did not. Those who didn’t win even exhibited increased liking for items merely similar to the prizes they didn’t win.

Here are 6 of the most interesting findings I discovered in her article: 

1. Discussions of free will have arisen out of Berridge’s work because wanting and liking can happen both consciously and unconsciously. This is why urgent desires can be irrational and inconsistent, and fly in the face of what we know is best for us in the long run. Unconscious wanting can defy our best-laid plans to end an unhealthy relationship or not polish off that box of chocolates.

2. Some brains are more dopamine-reactive, and thus prone to addiction. “Roughly 30% of individuals are very susceptible.” Genetics, traumatic stress during childhood, gender (women are more prone) and other factors are all implicated. Along with pleasure rewards and their cues, novelty also activates dopamine. Even something as simple as dropping your keys once will fire dopamine neurons. Drop them a few more times and the neurons will get bored and take no notice.

3. It’s reassuring to know that, as Peter Whybrow, director of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behaviour at ucla, writes in his new book “The Well Tuned Brain” (W.W. Norton), “our acquisitive mania, with all its unintended consequences, has emerged not because we are evil, but because in a time of plenty, such ancient instinctual strivings no longer serve their original purpose.” On the phone, he tells me he is fascinated by the idea that “the consumer wants something continuously if you can give them novelty,” and agrees that the market economy has intensified the dopamine-wanting system. “We have yoked fundamental biology, putting wanting, liking and reward together into a cultural vision of what is progress. We’ve forgotten how you constrain desire.”

4. Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow tests told children that they could forgo one marshmallow for the promise of two if they waited a while. Mischel tracked the children in later life and found a link between self-control and success. The controlled kids had resisted the marshmallow by simply making a decision and moving on without further discussion. They turned away from it, or tugged their pigtails to distract themselves from allowing it to arouse their senses.  The children who deliberated, or lingered over the marshmallow, were more likely to cave in.

5. “It looks as though the best way of resisting is not to open the question,” Holton tells me, between mouthfuls of plum crumble in the dimly lit dining hall at Peterhouse, Cambridge. Free will is one of Holton’s areas of interest, and having read the empirical literature on the subject, he reckons you’re more likely to beat your desires if you rehearse a script, such as “I’m not having dessert,” and repeat it to yourself when dessert is offered, shutting down any last-minute internal wrestling. Or, as our grandparents might have put it, forewarned is forearmed. “The one thing you do”, Holton says, “is start to make people aware that this is what’s happening to them and give them the tools to regulate it themselves.”

“If we knew more about the way our brains work,” Whybrow says, “then we would know our vulnerabilities.”

6. The Dalai Lama told Bowen (partly, Berridge suspects, to provoke) that her mindfulness for addicts was merely applying a Band Aid to the wound. But while it might be better to cultivate a civilisation in which people are immune to addictions and cravings, or at least where temptation isn’t shoved under our noses in the name of profit, this is the world we inhabit. As Berridge says, “we have a lot of wounds.”

Read the entire article here: