We know that having an electrode zap your pleasure center on command will cause you to neglect your work and friends, and become a dried husk of a human being. But at least it makes you feel pleasure. Or does it?

The B-19 experiment is one of the most famous muddles in psychology. Robert Heath, a psychiatrist and researcher, knew that applying electrodes to certain areas on a rat’s head would cause the rats to activate the electrodes again and again, neglecting everything else. That, everyone decided, must be the rat’s pleasure center.

Advertisement

In 1970, Heath tried the same technique with a human being. The subject was called B-19. B-19 was a severely depressed gay man. The experiment was at first meant to cure the depression, but the fact that stimulating his pleasure center made the man want to have sex with everyone, including women, caused Heath to consider developing the stimulation as a cure for homosexuality. B-19 appeared to be having a wonderful time. When given control over the stimulation, he activated the electrode 850 times over three hours. He didn’t want to be unhooked. Most people considered that a great indication of pleasure.

When he looked back on the experiments in 2004, psychologist Kent Berridge didn’t agree. After reading through the records of the experiment, he noticed that B-19 wasn’t having as good a time as his button-pushing indicated. Sure, he kept pressing the button, but what kind of magic-pleasure-button requires someone to press it roughly every twelve seconds in order to feel good? B-19 never said anything about feeling great. This might not seem like damning evidence, but consider how little it takes to make people say they’re enjoying themselves. Offer twenty people a brownie and half of them will say they love it before the second bite.

Berridge also examined the case of a woman who, over a decade after the B-19 incident, got electrodes stimulating her pleasure center. She compulsively activated the electrodes, but while she said they did make her feel good, they also made her feel guilty and anxious during the stimulation. (And for some reason, thirsty.) While she acted like she enjoyed the process, and some people believed she was addicted to the stimulation, her explanation doesn’t sound so much like enjoyment as compulsion.

Advertisement

So what does an electrode to the “pleasure center” actually do? Does it feel good? Or does it just make you act like it feels good?

[Source: Tasty, by John McQuaid]

Image: Allan Ajifo

Advertisement