Why Scientists Are Battling Over Pleasure

Is the pleasure of enjoying a Leonardo da Vinci painting really any different than the pleasure we get from eating chocolate?

A battle over pleasure has broken out. On Twitter and in the pages of scientific journals, psychologists, neurologists and neuroscientists are forging alliances over the question of whether pleasure we get from art is somehow different from the pleasure we get from candy, sex or drugs.

The debate was ignited by an opinion piece titled “Pleasure Junkies All Around!” published last year in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. In it, Julia F. Christensen, a neuroscientist at the The Warburg Institute at the University of London who studies people’s responses to dance choreography, argued that many of us have been turned into “mindless pleasure junkies, handing over our free will for the next dopamine shoot” provided by social media, pornography and sugar.

She offered up an unconventional solution: art, which she says engages us in ways these other pleasures do not and can “help overwrite the detrimental effects of dysfunctional urges and craving.”

The paper struck a nerve with some of her fellow art and pleasure researchers, who published a rebuttal last month in the same journal. The idea that the way that art engages the brain is somehow special has been around for far too long and it is time to kill it off once and for all, they insist.

“Christensen has recently argued that the pleasure induced by art is different to the pleasure induced by food, sex, sports, or drugs. Her argument, however, is contradicted by plenty of evidence showing that the pleasure from art is no different in genesis and function to the pleasure induced by food, drugs, and sex,” wrote Marcos Nadal, a psychologist at the University of the Balearic Islands who studies people’s responses to curvilinear lines in architecture and art, and Martin Skov, a neuroscientist at the Danish Research Centre for Magnetic Resonance who studies decision-making.

Their comment spurred others to rally to Dr. Christensen’s defense.

(Dr. Anjan Chatterjee is a neurologist at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania who wrote The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art.)

The arguments over Dr. Christensen’s paper pointed to disputes within the emerging field of neuroaesthetics, or the study of the neural processes underlying our appreciation and the production of beautiful objects and artworks:

■ On Team 1 you’ll find the argument that the experience of pleasure from art is neurobiologically identical to the experience of pleasure from candy or sex.

■ Team 2 believes that both making and appreciating art can offer unique neurobiological rewards.

■ Team 3 asks, “Who knows?!” (“Who cares?!” seems to be a subset of this group.)

Given that pleasure is known to be a powerful motivator of human behavior, it’s a dispute with implications far beyond art — at least according to Team 1 and Team 2.

“It’s starting to get really hot,” said Dr. Nadal of the debate. (In case you were wondering — he studies architectural lines because they are everywhere, affecting us in ways most of us have never considered, and they make “for good laboratory material because they are easy to control.”)

There are some core elements that all sides seem to agree on:

■ As with wine, how much people enjoy art seems to be affected by contextual cues like price or the reputation of the creator.

■ Art is difficult but possible to define. (Definitions vary, however.)

■ Across cultures, what people perceive as beautiful is less consistent with artwork than it is with architecture, landscapes and faces. (Faces are the most consistent.)

What researchers do not agree on is whether enjoying a da Vinci engages a different neural process than enjoying a visit to Pornhub or McDonald’s.

Dr. Nadal, speaking for Team 1, said in an interview that “humans appear to use only one pleasure system to assess how pleasurable or unpleasurable a sensory experience is.” He calls this discovery “one of the most important insights to emerge from the last 15 years of neuroscience,” and believes it shows that while enjoying Cheez-Its or a sculpture may feel different, in our brains they are processed the same way.

Others who study pleasure are not convinced.

“Talking in terms of shared neural systems is foolish,” said Paul Bloom, a psychology professor at Yale University and author of the book “How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like.”

He thinks that “art scratches all kinds of itches.” While watching “The Sopranos” or parallel parking a car are all done by the brain, he says that doesn’t mean they are the same.

Dr. Christensen, who studied dance before she became a neuroscientist, said she is not disputing that a single reward system processes all pleasures. But that does not eliminate the possibility that the arts also activate additional neural systems “related to memory processes, sense of self and reasoning that add something more to this pleasure.”

This “high-level pleasure” requires more scientific investigation. But given that we spend our lives chasing pleasures, she argues, why not try to better understand one of the few that “do not induce states of craving without fulfillment,” or cause health problems and instead make “you think and experience things differently.”

All of this may lead you to ask: If pleasures are so similar, why don’t people ever orgasm from pleasure associated with food or art? Actually some do.

According to Debra Herbenick, director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at the Indiana University Bloomington’s School of Public Health, eating a ripe tomato or reading nonerotic prose has been reported to provoke an orgasm. So, too, has walking barefoot on wood floors and doing pull-ups.

She cannot yet say why, which lends support to the broader notion that “there is really so much we as scientists still don’t understand about pleasure.”

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