Pleasure and Sensation

Often in casual conversation, the terms pleasure and enjoyment are used interchangeably. However, there is great value in making some distinction. Pleasure is a biological phenomenon. Enjoyment is a psychological phenomenon. Usually pleasure is accompanied by enjoyment but not always. Other things besides pleasure can be enjoyed. What is of interest in this article is pleasure and its role in human functioning, which I call the pleasure economy.

The Pleasure Economy: The pleasure process was described by Wilhelm Reich as having 'four beats': physical tension, energetic charge, energetic discharge, and physical relaxation. Hold ups occur around charge and discharge. Physical undertakings like sex and eating are obvious examples of the pleasure economy. Tension and charge with anticipation of pleasureable discharge can be called excitement. An excited state is usually associated with some movement but not all movements enable discharge, and discharge is not merely a movement. Discharge and relaxation after sufficient tension and charge brings a desirable state of experience described under the goal of satisfaction. It is also important to distinguish discharge from 'release'.

The form of the discharge may be temporally but not logically linked to the excitement. For instance, play at recess has been long understood to make the tension of sitting still and paying attention in class not only possible but profitable. The link between class and recess is a temporal one with tension preceding release in time, but the tension causing activity is not logically related to the discharging activity. This is why non-specific 'relaxation' at routine intervals is so valuable--everyone accumulates tension, and if the tension is held indefinitely the tension become un--dischargeable, even with participation in normally quite pleasureable activities.

For example, sneezing is a strong discharge which is naturally pleasureable, which may explain why it is frowned upon in polite society. Laughter, especially 'belly laughs' is a great discharge, hence the term 'comic relief.' Sleep for those whose sleep is good serves as a general discharge for tension accumulated during the day--how else to explain the frequent pleasant, satisfied feeling upon awakening? Crying (especially sobbing with abdominal and chest movement) is a strong discharge and is clearly part of the pleasure economy. At times a person will cry after sex when it is good because crying enhances or completes the discharge.

A great mistake in pleasure is often waiting too long between the tension and discharge. The connection between the two may be very logical but if too far apart in time, the discharge may not be possible. Delaying gratification may lead to more pleasure of course, by increasing the magnitude of the eventual discharge, but there are limits to this process. That is why great achievements may not provide great or even modest pleasure.

At this point a distinction needs to be made between the prospect of pleasure (which may or may by itself involve some positive feeling) and actual pleasure (which is 'cleansing' and satisfying) The prospect of pleasure is of two types: anticipation and promise. Anticipation is a whole-body phenomenon, it is excitement with awareness. Anticipating a good meal when one is hungry is itself pleasureable, but if the meal never comes, frustration may arise. How anticipation gets misused when there are blocks to pleasure is described in the section on sensualism below.

Promise (or relatedly, opportunity) is a cognitive recognition that one has obtained the means for pleasure. The human ego is always concerned about the future. This has some value in ensuring future conditions conducive to pleasure. This gratifies the ego and is accompanied by a modest positive feeling that has no real discharge and which I think is better described as reward or elation. Still, there is a profound confusion in our culture between actual good feeling and the prospect of good feelings. If one asks person how they are doing, almost always the reply is some evaluation of prospects. The difference is lost between the real time recognition of an activity as pleasureable, and the evaluation of an instrumental activity as gainful in the future. The two are not intrinsically incompatible, but where the incapacity for pleasure is present, prospects are illusory. A common example is a driven careerist who works constantly, fueling the ego with short-lived bursts of reward, in the process crippling the body's capacity for love or pleasure.

It is said that there are three types of pleasure: sensory, aesthetic, and mastery. Sensory pleasures are described later on the page. Aesthetic pleasure is present in the arts. Visual arts and drama can provide real pleasure by ideationally producing excitement then provoking its discharge. Managing the progression of tension and then discharge is openly acknowledged to be the skill in these arts. Symphonic music is in the same category, although it may blend with the sensory. Popular music is more clearly sensory, It is common for people to feel like dancing when music is playing. Music provides the excitement and dancing is the discharge that completes the pleasure. In art, what brings pleasure is known as beautiful. Much modern art gets away from the beautiful, and while it may then still have a salutary function, it is not a source of pleasure. Mental pleasure is a term that may refer to the 'prospect of pleasure' and reward as discussed above, or may refer to aesthetic pleasures. After an aesthetic excitement, pleasure may need to be completed with another step, such as in self-directed movement, self-expression, or sex.

Mastery is a pleasure where the tension of addressing a challenge is well matched by the release of actually doing the activity. 'Flow' is a term that has been coined to described this pleasureable state at its greatest intensity.

Problems with discharge and relaxation are much more common than problems with tension and charge. That is, problems achieving enjoyable release are more common than problems achieving excitement. Excitement is necessary for pleasure, but not sufficient. This build up of excitement can become painful, especially if it is considerable and discharge is not available. Excitement must subside away in the absence of discharge, and while this may be tolerable and inevitable at times, it is never satisfying. Work often builds tension over the course of the day. At quitting time there can be a natural release of tension in the body which is pleasureable. When work consists of extreme vigilance, is drudgery, is resented, or has no real stopping point, this natural release may not occur. Hence the ritual of drinking right after work, which provides an artificial release for a time but soon weakens the natural release, and dependency is common.

Very commonly the inability to discharge leads eventually to an inability to charge. This the basis of depression and dysthymia. The problem of pleasure in this case may seem to be lack of good fortune with external events, but it is really an internal incapacity for pleasure. To a depressed person, normally very exciting things do not produce the excitement, this is the basis of anhedonia. Relative anhedonia may exist apart from depressive episodes. A self-depriving ideology may be adopted to make sense of this pleasurelessness.

Pain While people vary widely in the capacity and search for pleasure, the tendency to avoid physical pain is almost never disrupted. Pain is associated with contraction of the body and with the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. Pleasure is associated with the parasympathetic branch. One function of pleasure perhaps is to restore the balance in the autonomic nervous system after inevitable experiences of pain.

Pain is intellectually and phenomenologically the opposite of pleasure, but they are not symmetrical in physiological roles. Reducing pain does not increase pleasure, rather it provides a temporary good feeling and burst of energy known as relief. Pain and pleasure occurring at the same time does not produce a neutral feeling, but rather a 'bittersweet' experience in which both things are present together. If relief is chronically mistaken for pleasure, one might not be aware of how much pain one puts oneself in usually. Also with pain or injury endorphins are produced to counteract the pain. Endorphins trick the mind into perceiving that the body is okay by making the brain feel good.. Endorphins do not provide an actual discharge and are not part of the pleasure economy. Endorphins can become part of the pleasure 'psychology' (not pleasure economy) however, since it is possible to manipulate the brain to be euphoric with 'aerobic exercise' or other ordeals (cutting, starvation, risk-taking, etc)

The qualitative difference between pain and pleasure also underlies the difference between medication and psychotherapy. Medication can take away bad feelings (provide relief) but (disregarding the deceptive short euphoria of drugs used recreationally) drugs cannot provide good feeling. Psychotherapy, especially body psychotherapy can both decrease bad feelings and produce good feelings. Admittedly, therapy is considerably trickier to 'get right' than medication. Medication may increase the quality of life considerably, and medication (except perhaps for chronic opiates and benzodiazepines) is compatible with body psychotherapy.

It is a myth that in sexual masochism, 'pain is pleasureable.' Rather, short modest pain or strong sensation can act on the musculature to allow a pleasureable discharge that dwarfs the initial pain. This is confirmed by the fact that pain is only sought out in very specific circumstances, such as sexual 'scenes', in which pleasure is appropriate. Endorphins may have a role here also.

Sensory Enjoyment: The senses are involved not just in acquiring information but in the tension/charge phase of pleasure. All sensory intake that is likely to lead to pleasure is therefore called pleasant. Pleasant sensations vary in intensity, which is related to the tension produced. The intensity of a pleasant sensation depends on the objective qualities of the stimulus but also on the sensory traits of the person--sensitivity, appetite, taste, etc.. Whether the tension of a sensation is welcomed is rightly related to the possibility of discharge. For instance, a person starting to get hungry welcomes the smell of good food cooking because he or she looks forward to discharging the tension in the eating. Someone who is full may find the smell of the same good food cooking slightly irritating. Any pleasant sensation in judicious quantities may be considered a good in itself, however, because the reasonable anticipation of pleasure produces some good feeling by itself. Pleasant sensations are necessary if not sufficient for pleasure, and so healthy functioning includes the seeking out and acceptance of such sensations, including novel sensations.

Food is a very basic source of pleasure. Food intake is regulated by the body both in terms of metabolic properties (calories etc) and in terms of pleasure. In a fine restaurant, portions are small, because it is understood that a smaller amount of really good food provides enough satisfaction. This is explainable only in terms of pleasure. The epidemic of obesity seems related to the consumption of large amounts of unsatisfying, sweet but mostly bland food. The body will easily overeat in terms of calories and grams in order to achieve or attempt satiation in pleasure In the pleasure arena though, quantity cannot make up for quality. Factory methods of farming bring food prices down but may delete subtle taste factors that previously provided pleasure. Another condition of pleasure in eating may be just being truly hungry so that the food really produces excitement, but not being so ravenous that it is not in the mouth long enough to be tasted. With cheap food and snacks always available, many people never really get hungry. Salt and sugar may drive intake but not provide real pleasure (rather just comfort, as described below). 'Insulin toxicity' creates a craving for carbohydrates but this is not a pleasure related appetite.

Sensory Adaptation: Humans are noted to quickly adapt to pleasant sensation. For example, a rare tasty food might produce considerable excitement the first time it is consumed, but if consumed frequently, the excitement drops off. That is why material prosperity past a minimum seems to have so little permanent effect on pleasure. A wise person learns not to try to 'force' pleasure by over-consuming. The same sensation can continue to be pleasant if it is not over-visited. An unwise person who does try to force pleasure is known as a hedonist, and this gives pleasure a bad name. Besides over-consuming in quantity, a common hedonistic strategy is to go for more and more rarefied sensations. As an occasional treat, unusually exquisite sensations might lead to very deep tension-discharge cycles, but as a steady lifestyle, they lead to boredom and sensory burnout.

Sensory adaptation as described above is a functional homeostatic mechanism. By itself, it does not indicate that all 'upgrades' in living are pointless. Better food for instance can lead to more vitality and satisfactions by other mechanisms than sensory input, and the same is true of more living space etc.. However, pleasure and satisfaction do not require escalating consumption or constant novelty, just reasonable variety. But misadventures do arise when the difference between excitement and pleasure are not understood, one of which is sensualism.

Sensualism: It is possible to learn to enjoy in some sense a state of charge without immediate commensurate discharge. In fact, it can become a 'pleasure skill' to build excitement and delay discharge, because the gratification is greater and more deeply satisfying. Building excitement seems more elemental biologically and can persist even when a early negative environmental responses have limit the ability to let go and discharge excitement. It is much easier to use the will to engage in activities that bring about excitement then to bring about release. The effect of will on the body is to decrease feeling, flow, and subtle, involuntary movement, and so discharge of excitement is hindered or made impossible. There is a distorted approach to producing good feeling that often develops in this predicament. It involves treating the anticipatory good feeling of excitement as an end in itself. Alexander Lowen called this sensualism.

Sensualism results in a need for ever more intense excitement to maintain the partial good feeling of excitement, and mask the pain of undischarged excitement, which must ebb away. Completed pleasure provides a feeling of peace and a feeling of enough, but with sensualism, there is never enough. The inordinate pursuit of excitement indicates that 'real' pleasure is not being achieved. Sensualism gives pleasure a bad name, because observers may associate the role of pleasure with a moral decay or addiction, or erratic behavior, but the opposite is the case. When the worry is expressed that a person can become 'too attached' to pleasure, it is probably sensualism that is being referenced.

For there to be pleasure in activity, it has to be the by-product, not the goal of the activity. The most fundamental example of the pleasure process with adults of course is sex. The goal of sex is union, (or as some say fusion), but the goal cannot be achieved if the capacity for pleasure is not intact. Trying to 'mine' sex for pleasure may work partially, but it falls far short of the potential.

Taste: What is experienced as pleasant varies from person to person, and can change over time for the person. Something can be sensed as too irritating for one person and delicious for another. For instance, one person can dread hot chilies and another seek them out. Sometimes, a person can come to love what they disliked.

However, it is an error to infer from this that tastes (what is found pleasant) is arbitrary or random or solely the province of conscious human choice. Tastes change partly because of exposure to sensations, and also partly due to associations, but largely because the capacity to hold tension or discharge tension increases or decreases. The set of sensory experiences that have the potential for pleasure do not really change, although individuals may always be discovering a new part of it for themselves. There is always a certain subset of sensory experiences that are 'edgy' that have a potential for high excitement but are actually painful for those not ready. Very spicy foods and the music of Bartok are examples. On the other hand, something truly not enjoyable may become a social fad, but then the term 'taste' becomes a misuse.

Conditioning: Pleasure and pain naturally influence behavior and learning. This has become, strangely, the foundation of a theory of human functioning called, broadly, behaviorism, and specifically, 'learning theory.' To reduce the role of pleasure to merely decisional information misses entirely the role of pleasure in regulating the body, let alone missing its role in love. Also, in learning theory, no distinction is made (or makeable) between pleasure and decrease in pain as an incentive. This can be very misleading, in that, a life in which a person is limiting pain is seen as progress, when in fact, maneuvers that limit pain often limit pleasure as well. In fact suppression, by limiting both pleasure and pain, defeats conditioning which is a healthy process. Human motivation is a compelling subject, in which pleasure will always be intertwined. The study of motivation is always hampered, however, if the pleasure function is taken for granted, or if the prospect of pleasure is used as a proxy.

Pleasure Anxiety: As described elsewhere on this site, to avoid painful or overwhelming feelings, many people have severe muscle tensions, and an estrangement from their own bodies. Pleasure, because it produces expansion in the body and some involuntary movement, is both painful and frightening. The stirrings of pleasure bring about feelings of unease, guilt, anxiety, incompetence, disorientation, and loss of control. Many people arrange their lives so as to avoid even 'the near occasion' of pleasure. This can be a conscious ideology, but it can also be an unconscious trend that dominates even when there is no conscious effort to avoid pleasure. The sounds of children and adults having fun can become irritating. Other common maneuvers to avoid pleasure anxiety (and thereby avoid the possibility of pleasure) are workaholism, self-deprivation (under the guise of austerity, efficiency, or purity), addictions, cults, and taking on excessive obligations that offer little enjoyment. A very insidious form of avoiding pleasure anxiety is turning possibly pleasureable activities into 'learning experiences.'

Another mechanism for pleasure anxiety may be the ego's unwillingness to lose its individuality. In intense pleasure, the ego disappears. That is why orgasm is sometimes known as 'the little death.'

Subjective well-being ('happiness') is a complex phenomenon that involves pleasure, excitement, elation, comfort, ability to decrease pain, and purpose. Only pleasure and purpose seem self-regulating. Everyday experience brings one into contact with people who are getting stuck in the other four: excitement (party-going, good time people...), elation (people who are always busy starting some new project or activity...), comfort (food, oral substitutes, reassurance, sick-role...), and decreasing pain (numbing, dissociation, TV, opiates, video games...)

Comfort and Comforting

Comfort is a state of relaxation, freedom from pain, ease, and agreeableness of the physical state. Comfort is a 'sensible' pursuit for it's own sake and for the sake of reducing and avoiding sympathetic shift. Comfort is a more limited phenomenon than pleasure however. Comfort is less dynamic and does not support the life process as much. Comfort is also biased toward sameness rather than newness so it does not promote growth and learning as much as pleasure. Also, unlike pleasure, comfort does not have a clear point of 'enoughness' and an over-indulgence in comfort can work against the life process.

Comforting is a process that at times strays even farther from pleasure and from the state of the body. Comforting is reducing a discomfort, pain, or anxiety, using some of the same 'pathways' as pleasure. An example of comforting is eating a particular, easily digested food when lonely or worried. Another example is talking to a friend about a worry. A capacity to seek comforting deliberately is part of self-nourishment.

However, comforting, if overused, can be a way to partly numb oneself and become estranged from the nature of one's problems. Comforting can be an avoidance of deeper feeling. Oral comforts--smoking, alcohol, drugs, snacking, rapid talking--are especially prone to this use. One tricky source of comfort can be spending time generating comforting thoughts--these may just be reassurances to the ego. It is common for adults to confuse various comforts and the act of comforting with pleasure, and therefore overlook the gradual loss of pleasure in their lives.