Oh, Cravings! You guilty pleasure
Why we can’t resist the pumpkin spice latte with extra pumps
15000+ studies are mounted on poster walls in a conference where 30,000 brain researchers are present in a 7500 capacity auditorium.
Finally, it’s the turn of one researcher who waits for the silence to be heard in the crowd. He’s given countless talks before but takes a deep breath and begins his presentation.
Dr. Kent Berridge is a researcher at the University of Michigan and focuses on the connection between pleasure and desire. If anyone can tell you why you can’t stop drinking that pumpkin spice latte then it’s him.
He’s been mapping the brain for around 3 decades. The research is specifically focused on mapping the brain’s reward system which lights up when you enjoy something for examples cake, social media scrolling, heroine. Hopefully not the heroine.
The reward system is important as it exists so we can seek out our needs. In the early times of civilization, it was easy because all you had to do was find shelter, hold power and make sure your genes were passed on to the next generation. It becomes just a tad bit complex in the modern world.
“It is of the nature of desire not to be satisfied, and most men live only for the gratification of it” — Aristotle
A common misconception is that dopamine produces pleasure and this was actually the norm around the 1980s. No one believed it when a researcher discovered that dopamine produced desire, not pleasure.
Fast forward to current times
The reward system is now known to contain a part that’s involved in liking (pleasure) and one is wanting (desire). The wanting system is big and powerful compared to the small and more fragile pleasure circuit.
So how was all this information discovered in the first place?
Experiments with eating.
In a nutshell, researchers gave rats something sweet to eat and they noticed they did the same thing that babies do. They poke out their tongues and lick their lips, the more they enjoy something the more they lick their lips. It was this same type of experiment which led to the discovery of dopamine.
Desire and pleasure often go together but it’s actually possible to want something without liking it at all. This is more like when you impulse buy which is often provides the thrill rather than the satisfaction of the end product.
A common example is:
- You’re on a diet but you see a cake. You know you should not eat it but you do and then feel disgusted for doing so.
- In a Stanford University study in 2010, researchers found when we don’t get something we want, we desire it even more while liking it even less.
- The study named “Lusting while Loathing” asked 60 participants to look at new gaming and payment systems as a cover story with the chance of winning prizes. They found even those who did not win showed an increased liking for items with the slightest resemblance to prizes they did not end up winning.
What can you do about it?
To better manage these uncontrollable desires there is something that has made a significant difference. It’s mindfulness meditation.
It’s not that meditating makes the feelings go away but rather as Berridge says, “is giving the more cognitive mind a way of distancing itself from the urgency of those wants. It’s practiced mental gymnastics. A want occurs, but because you’re so practiced, you can recognize that want, appraise it, feel it all around, focus on that, and the feeling of urgency as a feeling, without engaging in it.”
While there isn’t a clear answer here it’s because we still don’t know so much about how our brains work. If we knew everything about it then we would know exactly about vulnerability and how to mitigate them.
It’s all a band-aid to the wounds but the future holds the key to preventing the wounds in the first place.