The Constant Convert
Virtually Pleasuring Ourselves Out of Existence
Therefore, anything that influences the choices we make does so because it stimulates the pleasure circuit. Prayer activates the same part of the brain as eating a Big Mac.
Linden's book reveals the troubling dark side of having the ability to stimulate the pleasure circuit too easily. Scientists fitted rats with an electrode that would stimulate the pleasure circuit with the touch of a lever. Once the animals discovered that touching the lever created a pleasing sensation, they would push the lever obsessively, as many as thousands of times each day.
They wouldn't eat, or care for their young, and their offspring died of starvation.
Pleasure, administered so quickly and easily, became addictive.
In some rather unethical studies that took place in mental asylums years ago, Linden notes, the same proved true of humans. When fitted with a push-button pleasure activating electrode in the medial forebrain pleasure circuit, humans could not stop self-stimulating. Their fingers became callused from pushing the button. They neglected hygiene and family duties. They begged to be restrained from pushing the button, only to beg for access to it again.
Much has been made about how the internet re-wires our brains and shortens our attention spans. But considering Linden's research, it seems more likely that the internet—with its infinite promise of delightful information, ready at the touch of a button—is like having an electrode on our medial forebrain pleasure circuit.
If we have a choice to make, between receiving pleasure from quieting our brains, emptying our souls of self and stuff in order to have a transcendent experience in prayer that may or may not actually come, or to push a button and have the very same part of our brain stimulated in a millisecond's time with boundless information, often of a spiritually encouraging, or self-affirming nature—what are most people going to choose? If you have the choice between slogging through 600 pages of a novel of dubious interest, or moving, with the click of a button to more interesting plot-lines, what will you choose?
If all of our life choices are determined by the medial forebrain pleasure circuit, why would anyone choose to do anything other than push the self-stimulating buttons?
The answer is that our lives depend on resisting that urge. Indeed, if easy stimulation of the pleasure circuit has the capacity to surpass one's instinct for food, sexual reproduction, or caring for young, the survival of our species may depend on the sublimation of that pleasure.
Unless we have a spiritual, moral, or ethical framework to suggest that suffering, the absence of pleasure, has merit and benefit to our lives, civilization is at risk of being ignored to death. And as religious institutions are the most likely purveyors of the concept of suffering as the source of life, perhaps the last laugh in the evolutionary story is that the survival of the fittest might be in favor of religion.
Elizabeth Duffy is a freelance writer and author of the blog, "Betty Duffy." Her writing has appeared online at Faith and Family, the Korrektiv Press Blog, and numerous other venues. She and her husband live in rural Indiana with their five children.