But what if there were a way to achieve the same "high" sensation as one can get from illegal drugs, anytime, anywhere, and without the chemical side effects and criminal motivation? Such a technology does exist, and has seen limited use in humans for several decades. The practice is known as evoking pleasure by Electrical Stimulation of the Brain (ESB), and despite its invention in 1954, few people have ever heard of it, and much fewer have ever experienced it. It sounds like the stuff of science-fiction, but it's real technology.
The brain's reward center was discovered quite by accident in 1954, when researchers James Olds and Peter Milner were studying a part of the brain called the reticular formation which, when stimulated with implanted electrodes, caused laboratory animals to avoid the action which brought on the sensation. In the early testing, the electrodes did not always end up in the areas of the brain that researchers were aiming for, and one such mistake led to a fortuitous discovery. The electrode on one particular animal missed the reticular formation and went went into the brain's septal area instead.
This animal behaved in an unexpected way: rather than avoiding the action which brought on the electric shock, it repeated the action continually. James Olds wrote the following for Scientific American magazine in 1956:
This research led to a number of experiments where animals large and small were rewarded with electrode-driven pleasure when they took the particular actions the researchers were looking for. This positive-reinforcement conditioning was used to dramatic effect, allowing animals to become controllable via human-operated remote.
One of the most striking demonstration was done in 1964 by Dr. Jose Delgado of Yale University’s School of Medicine, when he caused a bull which was charging towards him to stop in its tracks and trot away. He had used a hand-held radio transmitter to energize the pleasure-giving electrodes which had been implanted into the bull's brain the previous day. Dr. Delgado was also known to "play" monkeys and cats like electronic toys.
Between 1950 and 1952, another man named Dr. Robert G. Heath experimentally implanted similar depth electrodes into human brains, the subjects mostly comprised of mentally ill patients from state mental hospitals. His experiments were met with uneasiness from the scientific community at the time, yet he continued. Upon the discovery of the brain's pleasure centers by Olds and Milner in '54, he put much of his research focus there. He found that using ESB in these areas of a human brain had a similar effect as it did on laboratory animals, bringing the subjects immediate pleasure.
From The Three Pound Universe:
Suddenly, she smiles. "Why are you smiling?" asks Dr. Heath, sitting by her bedside.
"I don't know ... Are you doing something to me? [Giggles.] I don't usually sit around and laugh at nothing. I must be laughing at something." "One hundred forty," says the offscreen technician.
The patient giggles again, transformed from a stone-faced zombie into a little girl with a secret joke. "What in the hell are you doing?" she asks. "You must be hitting some goody place."
Along with electrodes, Heath's team would sometimes implant a tube called a canula which could deliver precise doses of chemicals directly into the brain. When researchers injected the neurotransmitter acetylcholine into a patient's septal area, "vigorous activity" showed up on the EEG, and the patient usually described intense pleasure, including multiple orgasms lasting as long as thirty minutes.
Today, medical technology allows such electrodes to be completely implanted into the human body, including a battery pack the size of a book of matches. But these are a rarity, used only in very specific and extreme cases. Not even victims of intractable neuropathic pain or depression are permitted to have their pleasure centers wired. Individuals with happiness deficits are instead treated with drugs, which are both more and less invasive, depending on how you look at it. Medications don't involve holes drilled into the skull, but they do act upon the entire body, causing a host of unwanted chemical side-effects. Often they also result in a lifelong expense.
Some bioethicists feel that ESB technology should be made available to everyone, protected by the "pursuit of happiness" clause in the Declaration of Independence. Are there dangers in having euphoria just a click away, all the time? Would it be bad thing to have intense orgasmic pleasure at the push of a button?
It seems clear that the pleasure center of the brain evolved to guide our actions and to motivate us, by rewarding us when we do well. This is evidenced by the fact that the primary activity that we mammals have evolved to do-- to mate for reproduction-- results in greater portions of pleasure than any other natural activity. Therefore, it is possible that a pleasure-giving device would detract from our ambition and good judgment. Some people also worry that individuals who are raised without unhappiness and heartache would lack the "character" that makes us human. There is also the concern that most rewards decline in value after prolonged exposure, and some claim that this sort of technology would slowly erode a person's ability to feel good.
But these are all guesses, there is no way to know for certain how a human might change in response to such technology. One could also point out that many people never tire of other stimulations such as sex or pleasurable foods, and that while many people will naturally partake of those pleasurable activities a lot at first, most will gradually moderate the usage to times when it is most needed or appropriate. But nothing would stop an ESB-wired person from taking a day off work, putting a brick on the button, and enjoying an afternoon of bliss. As an added benefit over sex and chocolate, this technology isn't likely to result in unwanted pregnancies, disease, or weight gain.
The idea of putting electrodes into the brain is still too high on the creepy scale for most people, so there is little chance of the pleasure-o-matic concept gaining much following in the near future. But in the coming decades, when technological improvements on the human body begin to become commonplace, this sort of idea may just find some footing.