The Pleasure Principle

All animals, from chipmunks to chimpanzees, are programmed to seek pleasure and avoid pain. That’s part of our in-built drive for self-preservation, an instinct which Freud called the Pleasure Principal. Nature sets out to preserve the species, so surrounds the sex act with a wide range of titillating sensations. When we’re tired, nothing is as satisfying as the benison of sleep. So it is when we’re hungry, when we stimulate the brain’s pleasure by eating foods which are rich in readily assimilated fats and sugars. Ivan Pavlov, the great Russian physiologist, used this technique when he conditioned dogs to salivate in expectation of being either rewarded with a lump of sugar, or punished by an electric shock. This technique, known to behavioural psychologists as ‘operant conditioning’ is now employed by food manufacturers to get us to eat their fattening foods. Mars, is the world’s largest and most profitable candy company. When it started out, the firm recognized that many of its potential customers were poorly paid and unable to buy an adequate supply of nutritious food. So its original slogan was ‘A Mars bar a day helps you work, rest and play.’ Now that most workers in full time employment have a surplus of disposable income to spend on luxury foods, the company’s slogan has switched to ‘Pleasure you can’t measure’.

David Kessler, the former head of the US Food and Drug Administration, has written a book called The End of Overeating: Taking Control of our Insatiable Appetite’ which draws attention to the risks of comfort eating, which he claims can be as addictive as gambling, sex or psychedelic drugs. Food manufacturers know that they can create ‘hyperpalatable’ food by adding the right mix of fat, sugar and salt. When we eat these foods – whether flavoured milk shakes or double cheese burgers – we get an immediate hedonic high. They activate the brain’s pleasure centre, which Kessler calls the ‘Bliss Point’, and makes us long for more. Like nicotine addicts, and cocaine users, we give no thought to the long term harm caused by our addictive over eating. All we crave is pleasure in the here and now, to mask our angst and elevate our mood. One simple way of overcoming this addiction is to find a safer way of stimulating our Bliss Point. This alternative gratification can be found by listening to whatever music turns us on and uplifts our spirits. Researchers at McGill University, Montreal, have found that when we enjoy the sensory delights of listening to such music our brains are activated in exactly the same way as they are when we take psychedelic drugs or pleasure inducing foodstuffs. In all cases the pleasure is mediated through the release of dopamine, a naturally occurring substance which has been called the ‘reward’ chemical. Under its sway our body is activated, our heart beats faster and our breathing becomes deeper and faster. Some people are addicted to these dopamine ‘highs’, which can be triggered in many different ways. Ted Heath, Britain’s premier in the early 1970s, was such a person. He was a stimulus seeker, who loved the frisson he got from sailing-ocean going yachts, playing the organ and eating sugar-rich foods. He never married, but was sometimes looked after by a family friend called Nancy-Joan Seligman. She organised his Christmas celebrations at Chequers, and recalls how she once berated him ‘for his greed when, having opened his stocking before breakfast, he mistook the small globes of bubble bath for sweets, and ate them, later appearing with traces of foam around his mouth.’ The moral of the story is that if you get your highs from music and sailing,

you won’t get fat or foam around your mouth.


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