Read the full article at Times Higher Education.
It is true that we are limited by consciousness and, especially, by our unmatched ability and desire to predict an uncertain future based on a difficult past. While this helps us to survive, it can also stop us from truly enjoying the present.
We spend much of our time trying to predict what to do to obtain the rewards, such as food and sex, that allow us to survive – and we subsequently tell ourselves and others stories of these endlessly fascinating exploits. Research has started to provide some insights into the art of prediction. The 2017 Brain Prize was given to research by Wolfgang Schultz, Peter Dayan and Ray Dolan, who have demonstrated that the mammalian brain contains specific mechanisms for learning to predict how to obtain rewards. These findings are closely linked to more general research into the underlying fundamental mechanisms for pleasure and well-being. Over the short term, reward learning can be thought of as a recurring chain of events. Its initial phase involves wanting a reward, becoming motivated to seek it out and predicting how best to quell the desire for it. Once the reward has been obtained, there follows a liking phase, resulting in momentary pleasure, until satiation sets in. Then the cycle repeats – although usually for a different reward.
During this cycle, the brain is trying to balance the available resources by optimising the trajectories of dedicated neural networks. Groundbreaking research in rodents by neuroscientist Kent Berridge from the University of Michigan has identified the brain regions, networks and neurotransmitters that facilitate the underlying choreography of the pleasure cycle. Imbalances in this cycle are at the root of mental health problems, and are usually described as “anhedonia”: the lack of pleasure. Take, for example, addiction , which is strongly associated with problems transitioning away from the wanting phase. Addicts describe how the strong desire for their drug of choice persists even as the pleasure obtained wanes over time. Or as the French polymath Blaise Pascal described it: “Description of man: dependence, desire for independence, need.”
Over the past 20 years, [Morten Kringelbach has] used brain scanning with ever greater precision to measure the activity elicited by the pleasure of many different rewards, such as food, sex, drugs and music, in both healthy and unwell volunteers. We have even started building whole-brain computational models that can describe normal and disordered human brain activity. These are providing us with unprecedented insights into the pleasure cycle, which may in turn lead to new treatments for disorders such as addiction or depression.