Many of us would like to feel happier.
In the United States, people are having sex less often. And between alcohol, marijuana, recreational painkillers – not to mention anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medication – we take a lot of drugs.
Many of us work long hours at jobs we dislike so that we can afford to buy things that promise to fill some of the emptiness inside. The most lucrative businesses are advertising companies … one of which, Facebook, is designed to make you feel worse so that you’ll be more susceptible to its ads.
The suicide rate has been rising.
It might seem as though we don’t know how to make people happier. But, actually, we do.
Now, I know that I’ve written previously with bad medical advice, such as the suggestion that intentionally infecting yourself with the brain parasite Toxoplasma gondii could make you happier. This parasite boosts dopamine levels in your brain (dopamine is a neurotransmitter that conveys feelings of pleasure and mirth) and makes you feel bolder (in controlled laboratory experiments, infected mice show less stress when making risky decisions, and observational data suggests the same to be true for infected humans). You also might become more attractive (infected rodents have more sex, and portrait photographs of infected human men are perceived as more dominant and masculine).
There are drawbacks to Toxoplasma infection, of course. Infected rodents are more likely to be killed by cats. Infected humans may become slower as well, both physically and intellectually. Toxoplasma forms cysts in your brain. It might increase the chance of developing schizophrenia. It can kill you if you’re immunocompromised. And the surest way to contract toxoplasmosis, if incidental exposure hasn’t already done it for you, is by eating cat excrement.
My advice today is different. No feces required!
And I’m not suggesting anything illegal. I mentioned, above, that people in the United States take a lot of drugs. Several of these boost dopamine levels in your brain. Cocaine, for instance, is a “dopamine re-uptake inhibitor,” ensuring that any momentary sensation of pleasure will linger, allowing you to feel happy longer.
But cocaine has a nasty side effect of leading to incarceration, especially if the local law enforcement officers decide that your epidermal melanin concentration is too high. And jail is not a happy place.
Instead, you could make yourself happier with a bit of at-home trepanation, followed by the insertion of an electrode into the nucleus accumbens of your brain. Now, I know that sounds risky, what with the nucleus accumbens being way down near the base of your brain. But your brain is rather squishy – although you’ll sheer some cells as you cram a length of conductive wire into your cranium, the hope is that many neurons will be pushed out of the way.
The nucleus accumbens tends to show high activity during pleasure. For instance, cocaine stimulates activity in this part of your brain. So does money — tell research subjects that they’ve won a prize and you’ll see this region light up. If rats are implanted with an electrode that lets them jolt their own nucleus accumbens by pushing a lever, they’ll do it over and over. Pressing that lever makes them happier than eating, or drinking water, or having sex. They’ll blissfully self-stimulate until they collapse. From James Olds’s Science paper, “Self-Stimulation of the Brain”:
If animals with electrodes in the hypothalamus were run for 24 hours or 48 hours consecutively, they continued to respond as long as physiological endurance permitted.
Perhaps I should have warned you – amateur brain modification would carry some risks. Even if you have the tools needed to drill into your own skull without contracting a horrible infection, you don’t want to boost your mood just to die of dehydration.
After all, happiness might have some purpose. There might be reasons why certain activities – like eating, drinking water, having sex … to say nothing of strolling outdoors, or volunteering to help others – make us feel happy. After discussing several case studies in their research article “How Happy Is Too Happy,” Matthis Synofzik, Thomas Schlaepfer, and Joseph Fins write that using deep brain stimulation for the “induction of chronic euphoria could also impair the person’s cognitive capacity to respond to reasons about which volitions and preferences are in his or her best interests.”
When an activity makes us feel happy, we’re likely to do it again. That’s how people manage to dedicate their lives to service. Or get addicted to drugs.
And it’s how brain stimulation could be used for mind control.
If you show me a syringe, I’ll feel nervous. I don’t particularly like needles. But if you display that same syringe to an intravenous drug user, you’ll trigger some of the rush of actually shooting up. The men in my poetry classes have said that they feel all tingly if they even see the word “needle” written in a poem.
For months or years, needles presaged a sudden flush of pleasure. That linkage was enough for their brains to develop a fondness for the needles themselves.
If you wanted to develop a taste for an unpalatable food, you could do the same thing. Like bittermelon – I enjoy bittermelons, which have a flavor that’s totally different from anything else I’ve ever eaten, but lots of people loathe them.
Still, if you used deep brain stimulation to trigger pleasure every time a person ate bittermelon, that person would soon enjoy it.
Or you could make someone fall in love.
Far more effective than any witch’s potion, that. Each time your quarry encounters the future beloved, crank up the voltage. The beloved’s presence will soon be associated with a sense of comfort and pleasure. And that sensation – stretched out for long enough that the pair can build a set of shared memories – is much of what love is.
Of course, it probably sounds like I’m joking. You wouldn’t really send jolts of electricity into the core of somebody’s brain so that he’d fall in love with somebody new … right?
Fifty years passed between the discovery of pleasure-inducing deep brain stimulation and its current use as a treatment for depression … precisely because one of the pioneering researchers decided that it was reasonable to use the electrodes as a love potion.
In 1972, Charles Moan and Robert Heath published a scientific paper titled “Septal stimulation for the initiation of heterosexual behavior in a homosexual male.” Their study subject was a 24-year-old man who had been discharged from the military for homosexuality. Moan and Heath postulated that the right regimen of electrode stimulation – jolted while watching pornography, or while straddled by a female prostitute whom Moan and Heath hired to visit their lab – might lead this young man to desire physical intimacy with women.
Moan and Heath’s paper is surprisingly salacious:
After about 20 min of such interaction she begun [sic] to mount him, and though he was somewhat reticent he did achieve penetration. Active intercourse followed during which she had an orgasm that he was apparently able to sense. He became very excited at this and suggested that they turn over in order that he might assume the initiative. In this position he often paused to delay orgasm and to increase the duration of the pleasurable experience. Then, despite the milieu [inside a lab, romping under the appraising eyes of multiple fully-clothed scientists] and the encumbrance of the electrode wires, he successfully ejaculated. Subsequently, he expressed how much he had enjoyed her and how he hoped that he would have sex with her again in the near future.
The science writer Lone Frank recently published The Pleasure Shock, a meticulously researched book in which she concludes that Heath was unfairly maligned because most people in the 1970s were reticent to believe that consciousness arose from the interaction of perfectly ordinary matter inside our skulls. Changing a person’s mood with electricity sounds creepy, especially if you think that a mind is an ethereal, inviolable thing.
But it isn’t.
The mind, that is. The mind isn’t an ethereal, inviolable thing.
Zapping new thoughts into somebody’s brain, though, is definitely still understood (by me, at least) to be creepy.
Discussing the contemporary resurgence of electrical brain modification, Frank writes that:
In 2013, economist Ernst Fehr of Zurich University experimented with transcranial direct current stimulation, which sends a weak current through the cranium and is able to influence activity in areas of the brain that lie closest to the skull.
Fehr had sixty-three research subjects available. They played a money game in which they each were given a sum and had to take a position on how much they wanted to give an anonymous partner. In the first round, there were no sanctions from the partner, but in the second series of experiments, the person in question could protest and punish the subject.
There were two opposing forces at play. A cultural norm for sharing fairly – that is, equally – and a selfish interest in getting as much as possible for oneself. Fehr and his people found that the tug of war could be influenced by the right lateral prefrontal cortex. When the stimulation increased the brain activity, the subjects followed the fairness norm to a higher degree, while they were more inclined to act selfishly when the activity was diminished.
Perhaps the most thought-provoking thing was that the research subjects did not themselves feel any difference. When they were asked about it, they said their idea of fairness had not changed, while the selfishness of their behavior had changed.
Apparently, you can fiddle with subtle moral parameters in a person without the person who is manipulated being any the wiser.
The human brain evolved to create elaborate narratives that rationalize our own actions. As far as our consciousness is concerned, there’s no difference between telling a just so story about a decision we made un-aided, versus explaining a “choice” that we were guided toward by external current.
Frank believes that Heath was a brilliant doctor who sincerely wanted to help patients.
When bioethicist Carl Elliott reviewed The Pleasure Shock for the New York Review of Books, however, he pointed out that even – perhaps especially – brilliant doctors who sincerely want to help patients can stumble into rampantly unethical behavior.
The problem isn’t just that Heath pulsed electricity into the brain of a homosexual man so that he could ejaculate while fooling around with a woman. Many of Heath’s patients – who, it’s worth acknowledging, had previously been confined to nightmarish asylums – developed infections from their electrode implantations and died. Also, Heath knowingly promoted fraudulent research findings because he’d staked his reputation on a particular theory and was loathe to admit that he’d been wrong (not that Heath has been the only professor to perpetuate falsehoods this way).
Elliott concludes that:
Heath was a physician in love with his ideas.
Psychiatry has seen many men like this. Heath’s contemporaries include Ewen Cameron, the CIA-funded psychiatrist behind the infamous “psychic driving” studies at McGill University, in which patients were drugged into comas and subjected to repetitive messages or sounds for long periods, and Walter Freeman, the inventor of the icepick lobotomy and its most fervent evangelist.
These men may well have started with the best of intentions. But in medical research, good intentions can lead to the embalming table. All it takes is a powerful researcher with a surplus of self-confidence, a supportive institution, and a ready supply of vulnerable subjects.
Heath had them all.
It’s true that using an electrode to stimulate the nucleus accumbens inside your brain can probably make you feel happier. By way of contrast, reading essays like this one make most people feel less happy.
Sometimes it’s good to feel bad, though.
As Elliott reminds us, a lot of vulnerable people were abused in this research. A lot of vulnerable people are still treated with cavalier disregard, especially when folks with psychiatric issues are snared by our country’s criminal justice system. And the torments that we dole upon non-human animals are even worse.
Consider this passage from Frans De Waal’s Mama’s Last Hug, discussing empathy:
[University of Chicago researcher Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal] placed one rat in an enclosure, where it encountered a small transparent container, a bit like a jelly jar. Squeezed inside it was another rat, locked up, wriggling in distress.
Not only did the free rat learn how to open a little door to liberate the other, but she was remarkably eager to do so. Never trained on it, she did so spontaneously.
Then Bartal challenged her motivation by giving her a choice between two containers, one with chocolate chips – a favorite food that they could easily smell – and another with a trapped companion. The free rat often rescued her companion first, suggesting that reducing her distress counted more than delicious food.
Is it possible that these rats liberated their companions for companionship? While one rat is locked up, the other has no chance to play, mate, or groom. Do they just want to make contact? While the original study failed to address this question, a different study created a situation where rats could rescue each other without any chance of further interaction. That they still did so confirmed that the driving force is not a desire to be social.
Bartal believes it is emotional contagion: rats become distressed when noticing the other’s distress, which spurs them into action.
Conversely, when Bartal gave her rats an anxiety-reducing drug, turning them into happy hippies, they still knew how to open the little door to reach the chocolate chips, but in their tranquil state, they had no interest in the trapped rat. They couldn’t care less, showing the sort of emotional blunting of people on Prozac or pain-killers.
The rats became insensitive to the other’s agony and ceased helping.
You could feel happier. We know enough to be able to reach into your mind and change it. A miniscule flow of electrons is enough to trigger bliss.
But should we do it? Or use our unhappiness as fuel to change the world instead?