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Pleasure Deficit

Brain neurotransmitters work in patterns of stimulation or inhibition.  The interaction usually begins with just one neurotransmitter and then spreads and involves others in a pattern that resembles a cascade. ...if the normal reward cascade of neurochemicals is interfered with ... the resulting chemical deficiencies, excesses or imbalances create discomfort—a reward deficiency.  The discomfort takes the form of restlessness, anxiety, difficulty focusing, feeling incomplete and inadequate, or hypersensitivity.

                                    —Berkshire Research Group


Brain scientists have made the breakthrough discovery that both human and animal brains are hard-wired with reward pathways, also known as pleasure centers/systems. These pathways have to be stimulated sufficiently by serotonin, dopamine and other neurotransmitters if the organism is to feel and function optimally.

    In plain language, this means that we have to get a certain amount of pleasure and stimulation or rewards from our daily activities and what we put into our bodies. If we don't, then we create a pleasure deficit or what is known as "reward deficiency," and are subject to depression, anxiety and poor performance. Each day we have to stimulate our reward pathways adequately if we are to function well emotionally, mentally and physically.

     A broad range of activities and substances stimulate our reward pathways. From physical and social contacts and interactions that involve giving and receiving positive and negative strokes, to sensation seeking (Chapter 4) and flow experiences (Chapter 5), and activities such as eating, drinking, sex, dancing, sports, reading, surfing the Internet-anything that stimulates or gratifies us, including drugs.

    We need varied amounts of pleasure and stimulation or we get depressed, bored, function poorly, or even die. Repeated studies have shown that people who are isolated socially tend to die prematurely. Animal and human babies who don't get enough physical stroking soon after birth have their growth stunted or die, as documented in the now classic studies by Renee Spitz and Harry Harlow.

    There are healthy, positive pleasures as well as destructive, negative ones. Hard drugs belong in the latter category. Food can be both: normal amounts of nourishing foods are life sustaining and pleasurable; overeating, particularly of junk food, can be harmful.

    Just how powerful these reward pathways are in governing our behavior is most apparent when they are hijacked by addictions. As one former cocaine addict confessed:

    "Everything is about getting high and any means necessary to get there becomes rational. If it means stealing something from somebody close to you, then you'll do that. If it means lying to your family, borrowing money from people you know you can't pay back, writing checks you can't cover, you do all of those things. It's hard to understand how you continuously spend money and do things that are totally against everything you have ever believed in and get nothing out of it.

    A woman I know, who has a life-threatening case of emphysema, refuses to give up her pack-a-day cigarette addiction.

    The power of the reward pathways has been made even more dramatically apparent in animal studies. Laboratory rats were implanted with electrodes in reward areas of the brain and rigged so that by pushing a lever they could activate the electrodes and thereby stimulate themselves. The rats ignored food, water and sex for the chance to stimulate their pleasure pathways thousands of times-until they passed out from hunger or exhaustion. The rats would even swim across dangerous moats and master complex mazes for the reward of being able to press the levers that stimulated the electrodes implanted in their brain reward areas.

    For more details on how the reward systems work in humans please see Michael A. Bozarth's "Pleasure Systems in the Brain," at http://wings.buffalo.edu/aru/ARUreport01.htm.

    The reward pathways are in the limbic system located in the nucleus accumbens and the ventral tegmental area and at the base of the brain. See the title page brain diagram. This part of the brain is sometimes referred to as "reptilian."  It is tied in with our basic survival functions, which partly explains why it is so powerful.

    We can debate all we like about the moral, philosophical, ethical and religious implications of pleasure seeking. The hard reality is that given how powerful our reward pathways are, our brains demand and will get the pleasure stimulation they need, one way or another, and whether we like it or not.

    This leaves you with two options: You can consciously choose, seek out and experience the positive, healthy pleasures. Or, alternately, you can ignore your pleasure needs and abdicate that choice to your reward pathways to make up the pleasure deficit by overeating, drinking too much, smoking, thrill seeking, using hard drugs or other high-risk activities.This, then, is what is known as the "moment of truth."

    I'm betting that you will chose the first option. If this is true, then you'll need to come up with Your Individual Pleasure Inventory, as outlined in Chapter 6—a tool that will enable you to exercise conscious control over your pleasure seeking activities rather than leaving it to the demands of your brain's limbic system. And you’ll make this part of your daily schedule by incorporating in your To Do/Reward Yourself List as explained in Chapter 8, “Organized and In Control.” And you will need to come into this enterpise as a Proactor. To find out more see "Becoming a Proactor," Chapter 11.

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