The United States’ Declaration of Independence asserts that all individuals have an unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In the years since that document was drafted, its phrasing has been subject to much interpretation, and laws have been enacted to limit the scope of those rights, particularly the latter two. For instance, forbidding one from taking mood-altering drugs alienates an individual from his or her liberty and pursuit of happiness, but this limit exists under the debatable reasoning that drug use generally tends to trespass on the rights of others, including their right to pursue happiness.
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:
In the test experiment we were using, the animal was placed in a large box with corners labeled A, B, C, and D. Whenever the animal went to corner A, its brain was given a mild electric shock by the experimenter. When the test was performed on the animal with the electrode in the rhinencephalic nerve, it kept returning to corner A. After several such returns on the first day, it finally went to a different place and fell asleep. The next day, however, it seemed even more interested in corner A.At this point we assumed that the stimulus must provoke curiosity; we did not yet think of it as a reward. Further experimentation on the same animal soon indicated, to our surprise, that its response to the stimulus was more than curiosity. On the second day, after the animal had acquired the habit of returning to corner A to be stimulated, we began trying to draw it away to corner B, giving it an electric shock whenever it took a step in that direction. Within a matter of five minutes the animal was in corner B. After this the animal could be directed to almost any spot in the box at the will of the experimenter. Every step in the right direction was paid with a small shock; on arrival at the appointed place the animal received a longer series of shocks.
These early experiments found that applying a small electrical charge to the brain’s reward centers provided a very potent positive-feedback mechanism. Even if an animal was deprived of food for 24 hours, when confronted with a choice between food and this particular type of brain stimulation, it would always select the latter. The researchers also built an apparatus where an animal could use a lever to trigger the electrical current, and after it learned how the mechanism worked, the animal would stimulate its own brain regularly about once very five seconds, taking a stimulus of a second or so every time.
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:
A woman of indeterminate age lies on a narrow cot, a giant bandage covering her skull. At the start of the film she seems locked inside some private vortex of despair. Her face is as blank as her white hospital gown and her voice is a remote, tired monotone.”Sixty pulses,” says a disembodied voice. It belongs to the technician in the next room, who is sending a current to the electrode inside the woman’s head. The patient, inside her soundproof cubicle, does not hear him.
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.
In another controversial experiment in 1972, Dr. Heath wired up a homosexual man’s pleasure centers in order to help him “cure” his homosexuality. During the initial three-hour session, subject “B-19” stimulated himself some 1,500 times. Dr. Heath wrote of the experiment, “During these sessions, B-19 stimulated himself to a point that he was experiencing an almost overwhelming euphoria and elation, and had to be disconnected, despite his vigorous protests.” Since unnatural methods can bring about unnatural results, energizing the man’s electrodes as he looked at erotic pictures of women temporarily “cured” him of his homosexuality, but once the electrodes were removed, he went back to normal.
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.