Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Mmmmmh, Doughnuts!

The other half of the system that controls our behavior is, of course, pleasure. Life would be a stone drag if we were only guided by aversion, but fortunately there are some things that positively make us feel good. Oddly enough, more than a few people subscribe to ethical systems which tend to condemn them, and if George Carlin were still alive I'd bring him in to discuss that oddity, but I'll have to leave it to another day.

The bad news is that, like the aversive system that manifests as pain, the pleasure system evolved in creatures less intelligent than ourselves and hence it operates rather crudely, from our supersmart point of view. We can often figure out that deferring some form of gratification now will make us happier in the long run, but we can't always manage to do it, and that makes us even more unhappy because now we are disgusted with ourselves as well a lacking in whatever that longer-term prize was.

The most notorious example nowadays has to do with food, of course. Back in the days when calories were always in short supply, and the only really sweet thing we were likely to encounter was a fruit containing plenty of fiber and vitamins as well as sugar, that wasn't going to last very long before something else got it, the best thing to do was gobble it all up right on the spot. The animals we hunted didn't have much fat on them, but what was they had was fuel for the next day's hunt, and it was going to be rancid by then anyway if the hyenas didn't steal it, so chow down!

Sadly for us all today, there's far too much of that sweet and fatty stuff around for own good, but we just can't help ourselves. There's even worse news for many people, which is that we've discovered chemicals that drive that pleasure system directly. It's biology, not sin. Here's a reasonably succinct, if rather aloof, explanation. By the way, although in my view the biological addiction model is a bit strained when it comes to behaviors which are intrinsically rewarding like eating and sex, it works very well when it comes to gambling, which alters brain processes very much in the same way as chemical addictions.

Following up on yesterday's post, by the way, opioids are useful for the treatment of pain even they don't actually block pain. They don't make pain go away, they make you not care about it -- just the gift I was asking the intelligent designer to give us. Alas, there is that awful price of addiction. The drug becomes an end in itself, for some people the only end, at least when it's difficult to get.

I've talked about the illusion of free will before, but this is the most straightforward attack of all. In the case of addiction and compulsive behavior, we may actually have the conscious experience of acting against our own wishes. But does that make any sense?

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