Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Pleasure's perils: Why the 'sex chip' may not be such a good idea

Scientists have taken us one step closer to achieving permanent bliss.

Neuroscientists Morten Kringelbach and Tipu Aziz recently announced that they were able to stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain by implanting a chip that sends tiny shocks to the orbitofrontal cortex. This is the same area that is responsible for feelings of pleasure induced by such things as eating and sex.

Now before you put yourself on the waiting list for this device you may want to consider the implications. Sure, on-demand erotic bliss sounds all fine and well -- but such an add-on would come at a considerable price. As experiments and real-life situations have demonstrated, there are limits to how much pleasure both humans and other animals are able to experience before extreme compulsiveness sets in. Simply put, our current psychologies aren't really capable of handling it.

For this and other reasons, the advent of the 'sex chip' -- or even the fabled orgasmatron -- would introduce a slew of ethical problems. Governments will more than likely classify these sorts of technologies as drugs and work to restrict access; a completely blissed out citizenry is hardly desirable in a corporatist system. Proponents will argue that it's an issue of cognitive liberty -- that people have a right to manipulate their own minds as they see fit and work to reduce suffering in themselves and others. And yet others will contend that there's a hedonistic imperative in effect with profound existential and spiritual implications for the species as a whole.

Suffice to say, this will be a hotly contested topic in relatively short order.

Making pleasure

The ability to tweak the brain's pleasure center is nothing new.

Researchers James Olds and Peter Milner figured out a way to do it by accident in 1954 when they were studying the brain's reticular formation. During their experiments on mice, they discovered that electric shocks in the brain's septal area triggered the reward response. These responses were so potent that, when given the choice, mice would rather starve themselves to death than give up the ability to flip their own reward switch; at its worst, the mice were obsessively flipping their switches at 5 second intervals.

In the following decades, neuroscientist Robert G. Heath began to experiment with larger mammals, including bulls and humans. He developed a device comprised of electrodes and an implant tube (called a canula) which could deliver precise doses of chemicals into the brain. Specifically, he injected acetylcholine into a patient's septal area which caused "vigorous activity" to show up on the EEG. Patients undergoing this experiment described intense pleasure, including multiple orgasms lasting as long as thirty minutes.

In 1972, Heath attempted to "cure" a 24-year old male's homosexuality by using the technique to reprogram his sexual orientation through reconditioning. During a three hour span the man, infamously known as subject "B-19," stimulated himself nearly 1,500 times, inducing feelings of "almost overwhelming euphoria and elation." At the end of the experiment B19 had to be forcefully disconnected from the device. [It's worth noting that the experiment did not alter B-19's sexual orientation after disconnection.]

More recently, as part of some early work on Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) in 1986, a 48-year-old woman with a stimulating electrode implanted in her right central thalamus started to compulsively self-stimulate after discovering that it could produce erotic sensations. The nVPL electrode was meant to treat her chronic pain, but the stimulation also produced sexual sensations. The woman, who had control over the bursts, eventually developed a severe addiction to the stimulator.

It got so bad, in fact, that she began to self-stimulate herself throughout the day and to the point where she began to neglect personal hygiene and family commitments. The patient even developed a chronic ulceration at the tip of the finger she used to adjust the amplitude. And interestingly, the patient frequently tampered with the device in an effort to increase the stimulation. The patient eventually asked for limited access to the device, only to eventually demand that it be returned to her.

Over the course of two years, the stimulator caused compulsive use that became associated with frequent attacks of anxiety, depersonalization, periods of psychogenic polydipsia and complete inactivity. A similar case was recorded in 2005 when a Parkinson's patient developed an addiction to a DBS electrode that produced a 'morphine like' sensation.

Too much of a good thing?

There's no doubt in my mind that an implantable 'sex chip' would result in a slew of these pathologies. Our capacity for pleasure in the natural state has been carefully calibrated by the forces of natural selection. Feelings of sexual stimulation only needed to be good enough to encourage reproduction -- but not so good that an animal would be obsessed to the point of self-neglect. Nature did not prepare our psychologies for these extreme out-of-bounds sensations.

Pleasure-inducing technological devices threaten to overturn our delicate psychological balance. We already know how drugs mess with the limits of human restraint and it's often the psychological dependence caused by these stimulants that's very difficult to overcome. Once a person feels the extremes of pleasure it's very difficult to come back down -- and even more so when they have control over the inducement of the pleasure.

So, should these devices be banned?

Yes and no.

Like the current prohibition on both soft and hard drugs, there's a certain efficacy to a patriarchal imperative that works to protect citizens from themselves. Sex chip junkies wouldn't be unlike other kinds of junkies. Highly addicted and dysfunctional persons would find themselves outside the social contract and completely dependent on the state.

But what about the pursuit of happiness and other freedoms? And our cognitive liberties? A strong case can be made that we all have a vested interest in the quality of our own minds and the nature of our subjective experiences. Ensuring access to these sorts of technologies may prove to be a very important part of struggle for psychological autonomy.

This issue also brings to mind the hedonistic imperative. There's more to this debate than the immediate needs of our materialist condition and our Puritan predispositions. This is an issue with deep existential and spiritual implications. In a hostile universe with no meaning other than what we ascribe to it, who's to say that entering into a permanent state of bliss is somehow wrong or immoral? It could be said that maximizing the human capacity for pleasure is as valid a purpose as any other.

But as demonstrated above, self-stimulation has its pitfalls. It's not easy to come back to a regular baseline life after experiencing prolonged periods of bliss. As a result, I see the bliss-out option as something that makes more sense for persons in their later years. In fact, given the potential for radically extended lifespans, this may be a very reasonable option outside of voluntary death; once a person decides that they've had enough of the crazy game that is life they should be able to opt into a state of permanent bliss (the same could be said for those suffering from chronic pain or illnesses).

But by doing so, a person would effectively disengage from an active and purposeful life. And not only that, given a powerful enough pleasure device, persons would effectively cease to be persons, replaced instead by purely experiential agents. In a way it would like a kind of death.

In the meantime, we need to be careful about what we wish for and take this talk about a 'sex chip' with a grain of salt. Sure, it makes for titillating headlines, but it's probably not something most of us need in our lives at this exact moment.


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