Don't Be Fooled by the Pleasure Principle

Humans have marvelous minds. Whenever we’re confronted with something unfamiliar and it stirs within us a curiosity, we try to understand and explain its relationship to ourselves. We’ve done this from the very beginnings of human existence, and it’s a major reason for our dominance on Earth. We have the largest brains in relation to our weight of any creature on the planet, because we use our brains so much, and the vast majority of that use is trying to simplify the complexities of our existence.

Even if we don’t know enough about the mysteries that surround us to allow us to draw any satisfactory conclusions, we come up with explanations that give us a sense of understanding, because understanding puts us at ease. But understanding is a trick of the mind.  Understanding is not necessarily the same as knowing, though we often act as though it is. If we repeatedly experience a thing or process in the same way, we become familiar with it. When we’re familiar with something, we find a comfortable way to create a satisfying explanation about it, which may or may not be accurate, or even truthful.  We are prolific in our ability to explain anything. And to comfort ourselves with it. It’s one of the defining characteristics of human beings.

Much of our explaining about physical reality has been so successful that we can now navigate the solar system, cure a staggering number of diseases, and constantly create new technologies that make our lives easier and safer. However, there’s a big difference in the way we experience and manipulate physical things, and the ways we experience our feelings, or our selves. 

For example, in ancient times, when we watched the sun rise in the east and set in the west, we came to the conclusion that the sun rotated around the earth. With that, we believed that our earth existed in the center of the universe. At that time, we also believed the earth was flat.  These beliefs were based on the repeated, consistent sensory experience of things we saw and manipulated. 

The experience of psychological process is very different from the experience of physical things. For one thing, the complexity of the experience of psychological systems is much greater than the experience of, say, chairs and footballs. Physical things don’t move about in the world by themselves: they, by and large, stay put, and we experience them through our senses. It’s a fairly straightforward interaction that is similar from one person to the next.

But the brain, with its one hundred billion nerve cells, is both hugely complex and in constant motion, and information about the brain’s homeostatic operations isn’t channeled into consciousness through the same systems that are used to bring sensory information from the outside world into awareness.  

Also, the nervous systems in human brains differ from person to person. Like finger prints, we all have them, but in each of us the design and organization is unique, so we experience ourselves in unique ways. So, while we share similar experiences of the sense-driven outer world, the way we experience our nonsensory inner worlds may differ wildly.

 For example, we believe that we do things because it gives us pleasure to do them, or on the other side, we avoid doing things because we find them unpleasant. All of these judgements are accompanied by the experience of our “self” providing explanations, which we interpret as understanding, or knowledge. This leads us to believe that it is our “self” that has intentional control over how we live our lives. This kind of thinking is similar to the ways we thought about the relationship of the earth to the sun. 

All of the beliefs I just described have one thing in common: they’re reasonable but uninformed explanations based on repetition. If activities or concepts are repeated over and over again, we become familiar with them, and look for an explanation to ease the tension of not-knowing. If they are the same every time we experience them, we categorize them as “reasonable.” In other words, we explain repetition based on casual simplistic observation of consistency as accuracy until we are confronted with contradictory, un-ignorable facts.

In humanity’s evolution, when we began to realize our simplistic explanations about physical things were not necessarily true, we created research science which, over time, enabled us to see the complexity of physical matter that exists beyond casual observation. It has taken us longer to recognize the profound complexity of human thought and emotion.  

For a little over a century now, we’ve been scientifically learning more about the nonphysical nature of psychology, and with the growth of brain research, we’re finding new ways to explain the relationship between the brain and its mind. In my new book, Changing Habits of Mind, I put it this way: “When it comes to psychological matters, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a duck.” In other words, casual sensory information presents us with very limited useful information about psychological process.

Take the experience of pleasure. When we enjoy simple things repeatedly, like eating ice cream or playing chess well, we explain ourselves by saying we are governed by the Pleasure Principle, an (erroneous explanation of) a drive to seek that which makes us feel good and avoid that which is distasteful or hurtful. Experiencing the opposites of pleasure and displeasure enables us to have a richer explanation about why we do or don’t do things: we do things that please us and avoid things that displease us. On top of that, we observe that embedded in both sides of the Pleasure Principle there is the ever-present “I” or “me” of our Self: I love baseball, I hate the color yellow, why do these bad things always happen to me?

The repeated presence of self pronouns leads us to believe that our self is the cause of our behavior and experience. This belief is like the explanation that the earth is the center of the universe because it always looks that way, yet neither the geocentric or the Pleasure/Displeasure explanation recognize the complexities that exist beneath simple repetition. 

Psychotherapists, more than most people, get a deeper, richer view of the complexities that underlie human emotional experience. I became suspicious of the meaningfulness of the Pleasure Principle early in my psychotherapy practice when I saw people who, with talent and imagination, repeatedly made their lives miserable. One common example was the way many of my clients non-consciously selected mates just like their parents, who were often abusive and cold. These are not pleasure-seeking choices, yet I’ve seen couples steadfastly remain in miserable relationships because they are habituated to recreating the wretchedness of their early family lives. (Note: The same dynamic of avoidance and pain associated with the adult loving experience holds true. See my first blog post, Love Doesn’t Make the World Go ‘Round.)

Over time, I realized that pleasure is a feeling. It is not a physical object; it is a unique self-experience, activated more by affect hunger (see previous blog post, Affect Hunger: The Path to Sweet Loneliness or the Road to Hell) than a simple innate attraction/repulsion movement; mistakenly called “drive.” Therefore, the Pleasure Principle is not an adequate motivational explanation. Like the ancient belief that the sun rotated around the earth, the explanation that pleasure motivates us is a simplistic belief that prevents us from recognizing the complexity of our feelings.   

Regularly repeated use of a neurological system reinforces the integrity of a neurological system, or as I like to say, “practice makes permanent.” This aphorism describes both the experience and behavioral regularity of habituated neurological systems. Neurological personality systems are grown in childhood and, therefore, remain embedded in the brain. Their need for continuing exercise to remain operative emerges in behavior as self-perpetuating systems. If they are repeated enough times, they become permanent, automatic, and are not displayed in awareness — eventually we cease to be aware they’re possibilities rather than unalterable facts.

I’ll continue talking about the role affect hunger plays in motivation and understanding in future posts.