Alpina Publisher Publishing House published a book by the primatologist and neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, where he talks about the biological mechanisms behind our behavior. Life around gives an excerpt from a chapter about what brings us pleasure and how it happens.
Sex and food
To begin with, we note that the dopamine system is a reward system: various pleasant stimuli excite tire neurons, and they release dopamine in response. Here are some facts to support this. Alcohol and drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, cause the release of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens. If you stop the release of dopamine in the tire, then previously pleasant substances will cause disgust.
With chronic stress or pain, dopamine ceases to be enough, and the sensitivity of dopaminergic neurons to stimulation also decreases; as a result, one of the indicative symptoms develops - anhedonia, the inability to enjoy. Some rewards, such as sex, cause dopamine to be released in all species studied for this subject. People even think about sex are fun.
In any hungry animal, the release of dopamine is caused by food - with some purely human tricks. Show the person the bun after he chewed one, and there will be no dopamine excitement: this is how saturation looks. But for someone who is on a diet, the appearance of a second bun will cause an even greater release of dopamine. Therefore, it is so difficult to follow a diet - the first bun only strengthens the desire to eat the next.
Art, Punishment and Envy
The mesolimbic dopamine pathway is activated in response to aesthetic pleasure. In one study, people were allowed to listen to new music. And the more the adjacent nucleus was excited, the more likely people then bought CDs with this music. There are also some “artificial” cultural inventions that exploit dopamine activation, for example, men like to consider pictures of sports cars.
In the context of social interactions, the picture of dopamine activation becomes even more interesting. And some of the studies directly warm the soul. In one of them, two people played an economic game, the rules of which suggested a two-way way to receive rewards. You could win if the players could manage to cooperate; in this case, the winning amount of both turned out to be the same, but rather modest. It was also possible, betraying the opponent, to get ahead, then their own win was much greater, and the second player did not get anything. In both cases, dopaminergic neurons were activated, but activation turned out to be higher in the case of cooperation.
Another study looked at dopamine activation when sentencing. Also an economic game and also two players. But in this case, player B can, by putting a pig to player A, get a significant gain. Having found a fraud, player A in different rounds of the game could, firstly, do nothing, secondly, deprive B of part of the money without any losses for himself, thirdly, pay his money so that B is fined twice. Punishment as such activates the dopamine system A, but for those who played the round with the third strategy, the activation turned out to be the highest. The higher the level of activity of the dopamine system during the second round (punishment of another without loss for himself), the more the player was willing to pay for the punishment of the opponent in the third round. So the punishment of violators of social norms also brings satisfaction.
Another excellent study examined the phenomenon of overpayment at auctions, when people give more than they originally planned; it was performed by Elizabeth Phelps of New York University. Overpayment is interpreted as the situation with receiving an additional award for winning the competition, if we consider the competitive side of the auction. After all, winning a lot in an auction, in contrast to winning a lottery, is an example of social competition. In both winning cases - both in the lottery and at the auction - the dopamine system is activated. In this case, an empty lottery ticket does not cause a response, and when an opponent intercepts a lot, dopamine is immediately stopped. An empty ticket is nothing more than “no luck”, while a lost lot is a sign of social second-rate status.
And now the whole spectrum of envy opens up before us. So, in one of the studies using neuroscanning, subjects read about the academic, financial, social, physical successes of others. Moreover, according to their own estimates, they experienced envy. Scanning simultaneously showed arousal in areas of the cortex associated with the perception of pain. Then followed descriptions of the manifestations of evil rock that overtook those initially successful personalities (for example, how they were fired from their posts).
This time, a brain scan showed activation of the dopamine system: the higher the excitement in the pain centers when reading about success, the more dopaminergic pathways were activated when the failure was reported. This is how the dopaminergic system works when we maliciously address the object of our envy that fell out of favor with fate.
But the results of another study - relating to jealousy, resentment and illegality. It focuses on the role of the dopamine system, and its results are unpleasant for us. Monkeys were taught to press the lever ten times, and then they received a highlight as a reward. With each press, a portion of dopamine was released in the adjacent nucleus - such was the neurological result of the training. And now the monkey presses the lever the same ten times, but receives - surprise surprise! - two highlights. Hooray! The monkey secreted 20 servings of dopamine. The monkey continues to receive two raisins, however, there are already only ten servings of dopamine. Everything is back to square one. But now, when receiving only one highlight, instead of two, her dopamine level is reduced.
Why? Yes, because we are already in the world of habits, and in it nothing pleases us as it was the first time.
Unfortunately, this should work just that way. And the point here is the range of possibilities of the award itself. Our system is forced to provide pleasure from solving a mathematical problem, and from orgasm. The dopamine response, as a result, is expressed not in absolute units, but in relative ones, since the system has to compare the possible pleasure from different behavioral consequences. That is, the system is forced to constantly scale the pleasures in order to adequately respond to the intensity of various stimuli - as well as the solved problem, and orgasm.
When the stimulus is repeated, the answer becomes familiar, and now the system with all its capabilities addresses new stimuli. The addictive reward system was beautifully shown in a study by Wolfram Schulz of the University of Cambridge. It was performed on monkeys: they were trained, depending on the circumstances, to receive either two or 20 reward units. If they suddenly got four or 40 units, then in both cases the dopamine level jumped to the same level. And if they were given one or ten, respectively, then he was similarly reduced.
A pleasant surprise
Thus, we see, not the absolute, but the relative value of the "dopamine" surprise, which uniformly manifests itself in the tenfold winning range. From these studies, it becomes clear that the dopamine system responds to the stimulus in two ways. Her response is disproportionately increased if good news arrives, and diminished if the news is bad.
Schultz demonstrated that the dopamine system responds to the discrepancy between the size of the award and expectations: give the expected - and the dopamine system will remain in its place. But if you give more or faster - she will immediately start up and throw out an increased portion. And if you give less or later, then the release of dopamine will decrease. Some tire neurons are excited with positive inconsistencies, while others with negative ones. In the latter case, we are talking about neurons that secrete the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). It is they who take part in the process of addiction, when before the intoxicating reward excites less and less.
It is clear that the processes of the frontal cortex should come to the area of the tire and adjacent nucleus, where these types of neurons are based. This is the place where expectations and results are calculated: "I was hoping to get 5, but I have 4.9 here; and how can I evaluate this disgrace?" For the answer, additional, weighing, sections of the brain are connected. In one study, people were shown a certain product and in parallel, by activity in the nucleus accumbens, they predicted how much a person would pay for it. And then the real price was reported. If it was less than what the subjects were willing to pay, then it was activated by vPFK, and if it was larger, then the area of the islet associated with disgust. Compare the results of neuroscanning - and here you have a ready-made answer whether a person will buy the proposed product or not.
We saw that in mammals, the dopamine system responds violently to a wide variety of new experiences, both positive and negative, but then gradually gets used to, transferring the experience into an everyday habit. But people have something left. We have invented pleasures far brighter than anything nature has to offer. Sitting once at a concert of church organ music, I, seized with delight, suddenly thought: "And how did this hurricane of sounds affect the medieval peasant?"
He had never heard such loud sounds in his daily life; they should have inspired him with a truly reverent, incomprehensible thrill. It is not surprising that people like him immediately converted to the religion that they were offered. And today, sounds fall upon us all the time, with their volume leaving far behind an old-fashioned organ. In ancient times, hunter-gatherers, once having found a wild hive, were overjoyed at the taste of honey. And now in front of our eyes in the shops you can see beautifully designed food for every taste, which excites much more than a modest natural product. Once upon a time, human life was full of dangers and hardships, but it also had sources of pleasure - true, mean and hard to reach.
And now we have drugs that cause a powerful surge of pleasure, in which the release of dopamine is thousands of times greater than the response to any natural stimulus in that old drug-free world. But after comes the devastation. It is inevitable - recall the inevitability of getting used to excessive rewards. The unnatural power of synthetic pleasure is an unnaturally high degree of addiction. Two consequences follow from this.
Firstly, now we barely notice the quiet whisper of former pleasures, the beauty of the golden autumn no longer delights, a nice person does not attract eyes, does not attract a solution to a difficult interesting task. And secondly, you even get used to such a storm of artificial delight. If we were smartly designed, then with increased consumption, our desires would decrease. But our human tragedy is precisely in the fact that the more they give us, the more we desire. Even more, even faster, even stronger ...
And what unexpectedly pleased us yesterday was already taken for granted today, and tomorrow it will not be enough.
Cover: "Alpina Publisher"