food pornThere is fascinating new research on pleasure that has a bearing on how we understand taste.

Neuroscientist Dr. Kent Berridge has been arguing that the neurological systems governing desire are quite distinct from the system governing pleasure. This article in the Economist lays out the basic picture although you have to wade through paragraph after paragraph of fluffy, journalistic palaver to find out what his thesis is. (I swear journalism is tapping the ranks of Junior High School to find reporters, but don’t get me started on the press)

Anyway, I would summarize his thesis as follow

1. The neurotransmitter dopamine induces desire but does not induce pleasure.

2. Opioids and endocannabinoids induce pleasure from tiny distribution points in the brain all linked back to the nucleus accumbens. “This same entire circuit is activated for any pleasure, from food and sex to higher-order delights including monetary, musical and altruistic. The same gloss applied to very different events.”

3. Thus wanting and liking can come apart. We can want things we will not enjoy, a phenomenon common in addicts.

4. The desire system is “vast and powerful”; the pleasure circuit “anatomically tiny”, “fragile” and “hard to trigger”, which explains why intense pleasures are less frequent and less sustained than intense desires.

What does all this mean for taste and our experiences of food? To my mind it means that if we want to learn to control desires, suppressing pleasure is not the way to go. To the contrary, learning to gain more and sustained pleasure from less extreme desires is the route to self-control, which is an argument for taking the simple pleasures of the table more seriously. (A thesis for which I argue more thoroughly in my forthcoming book, American Foodie: Taste, Art and the Cultural Revolution) It also suggests that we don’t get pleasure from the anticipation of a meal—that is just desire which may make us feel more alive and attentive but is not pleasure. (So is food porn enjoyable or just anticipation?)

A couple other points struck me as interesting about this research. One of Berridge’s colleagues Morten Kringelbach gives a compelling description of the experience of eating:

“One of the key things in pleasure”, says Kringelbach, whose default timbre sits just above whisper level, “is that it comes in cycles.” Wanting and liking wax and wane like candle flames. The hungry, wanting state before a meal could be studded with moments of pleasure from a social encounter, or anticipation of good food.  Then, as we eat, pleasure dominates, but wanting still crops up – more salt, a drink of water, a second helping. Before long, the satiety system steps in to render each mouthful less delicious until we stop. If we switch to another food – dessert, cheese, petits fours – we can prolong the pleasure until we’re stuffed, although we may regret it.

This renders the experience of food in terms very much like our experience of music. Following music is a matter of following patterns of anticipations and releases, and one could argue that the art of music is a matter of how skillful and inventive one is at weaving them together to form a coherent whole. The art of cooking may be understood similarly. The most interesting dishes are those that evolve on the palate, that have a build up of energy and a release that feels like a culmination. (I will try to make more sense of that in a future post)

But just one quibble with Berriidge’s way of understanding pleasure.

From the evidence so far, it looks as though this same entire circuit is activated for any pleasure, from food and sex to higher-order delights including monetary, musical and altruistic. The same gloss applied to very different events.

He speaks as though we “paint on” a gloss of pleasure over experienced events. In an earlier paper he writes:

“sweetness tastes nice. It is one of the sensations most reliably able to cause pleasure in people. The pleasure of sweetness lies not in the intrinsic sensation itself, but in something done to it.”

But if it is not the intrinsic taste of sweetness that gives pleasure, what does? Yes, in know the release of oppoids but what triggers that release if not the intrinsic property of sweetness? Furthermore, he suggests that all pleasures are alike—a single gloss we paint on varied experiences. But pleasures are not all experienced as alike. The pleasure of listening to head-banging speed metal is different from enjoying a nice Osso Buco. The phenomenology is different even if the neurobiology is not. And to my mind if you can’t explain the phenomenology there is something missing from your account.

But, nevertheless, fascinating research that is worth thinking about.