Al Fin, You Sexy Thing!

26 June 2006

Holy Magnetic Fields and Other Brain Jolting Pleasures

Humans have been searching for God ever since men began wondering--"what is this word that women keep using when they climax"? Humans are still searching for the transcendant, and it makes perfect sense that they incorporate modern technology in the search.

Dr. Michael Persinger has been researching the effect of transcranial magnetic stimulation on the human brain for about twenty years. He developed what has been dubbed "the God helmet", an array of electromagnets that mount on the subject's head.

The magnetic helmet focuses on the temporal lobe, a part of the brain that has been associated with transcendant experiences for some time. Many subjects do indeed report transcendant experiences, such as experiencing being in the presence of God, or in the presence of someone they know who has died. Others experience only very subtle effects, or no effects at all.

Earlier researchers used direct electrical stimulation of the brain, with more striking results. Jose M.R. Delgado was an early neuroscientist who used direct brain stimulation. He is perhaps most famous for his use of brain stimulation to stop a raging bull in its tracks. Wilder Penfield was a North American neurosurgeon whose use of electrical probes in neurosurgery expanded the knowledge of brain function tremendously. Robert G. Heath was another neurosurgeon, who pursued electrical stimulation of the brain for therapeutic purposes.

Most mainstream medical uses of electrical brain stimulation seek only to alleviate traditional maladies such as movement disorders, mood disorders, etc. Heath's research in the 50s and 60s used electrical stimulation of the pleasure centers of the brain to take the research to a new level:

Heath tells us some of his patients were given "self-stimulators" similar to the ones used by Old's rats. Whenever he felt the urge, the patient could push any of 3 or 4 buttons on the self-stimulator hooked to his belt. Each button was connected to an electrodeimplanted in a different part of his brain, and the device kept track of the number of times he stimulated each site.

Heath tells of one patient who felt impelled to stimulate his septal region about 1500 times per hour. He happened to be a schizophrenic homosexual who wanted to change his sexual preference. As an experiment, Heath gave the man stag films to watch while he pushed his pleasure-center hotline, and the result was a new interest in female companionship. After clearing things with the state attorney general, the enterprising Tulane doctors went out and hired a "lady of the evening," as Heath delicately put it, for their ardent patient.

"We paid her fifty dollars," Heath recalls. "I told her it might be a little weird, but the room would be completely blacked out with curtains. In the next room we had the instruments for recording his brain waves, and he had enough lead wiring running into the electrodes in his brain so he could move around freely. We stimulated him a few times, the young lady was cooperative, and it was a very successful experience." The conversion was only temporary, however.

... We ask Heath if human beings are as compulsive about pleasure as the rats of Old's laboratory that self-stimulated until they passed out. "No," he tells us. "People don't self-stimulate constantly -- as long as they're feeling good. Only when they're depressed does the stimulation trigger a big response. There are so many factors that play into a human being's pleasure response: your experience, your memory system, sensory cues..." he muses.

A more recent medical scientist's accidental discovery of an
device is in need of volunteers, to perfect the method.

Dr Meloy - originally a pain specialist - stumbled on the concept when he inserted a pacemaker-like device under the skin in a bid to alleviate severe back pain in a patient.

The pronounced side-effects of the electrical current it delivered prompted him to diversify into a different field of research. He patented the idea of using the technique to treat female sexual dysfunction.

The device works because of a natural reflex in the body which produces an orgasm.

The pursuit of push-button pleasure and electromagnetic transcendance might cause one to wonder just what humans want? A lot of people instinctively answer that humans just want to be happy. But is that true? Here is one thoughtful perspective:

3.5: Isn't "happiness" the meaning of life?


What is happiness? What's it made of? Where's it come from?

To over-simplify things down to the basic evolutionary origin, happiness is what we feel when we achieve a goal. It's the indicator of success. (The actual emotion of happiness is far more complex in rats, never mind humans, but let's start with the simplest possible case.) By seeking "happiness" as a pure thing, independent of any goals, we are in essence short-circuiting the system.

....Or to put it another way, how do you know you're happy? Because you think you're happy, right? So thinking you're happy is the indicator of happiness? Maybe you should actually try to spend your life thinking you're happy, instead of being happy.

.... Once you place the indicator of success on the same logical level as the goal, you've opened the gates of chaos. That's the basic paradox of "wireheading", the science-fictional term for sticking a wire into the brain's pleasure center and spending your days in artificial bliss. Once you say that you should take the indicator of success and treat that as success, why not go another step and trick yourself into just thinking that you're happy? Or thinking that you think you're happy?

....There's also the problem that seeking "true happiness" is chasing a chimera. The emotions of happiness, and the conditions for being happy, are all evolutionary adaptations - the neurologically reified shapes of strategies that promoted reproductive fitness in the Plio-Pleistocene environment. Or in plain English, when we're happy about something, it's because being happy helped you survive or have kids in hunter-gatherer tribes.

Punchline: There is no point at which the optimal evolutionary strategy is to be happy with what you have. Any pleasure will pall. We're programmed to seek after true happiness, programmed to believe in it and anticipate it, but no such emotion actually exists within the brain. There's no evolutionary reason why it should.

What if everyone could sense the presence of God by putting on a God helmet, or could achieve total bliss at the push of a button on a handheld remote? Would that be your heaven?

Wireheading may be obsolete with the coming of wifi and bluetooth. More likely your implant would have a small antenna--indistinguishable from normal hair. You carry your pleasure button transmitter on a small locket worn around your neck. You may choose between three different settings--joy, bliss, and total transfixed wonder.

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