Pleasure and desire are essential to all human behavior, says Oxford University neuroscientist Morten Kringelbach , and he challenges us to trust our animal instincts in pursuit of those.

Pleasure and our sense of reward are produced by the interaction of many different brain regions, processed consciously or unconsciously.  In the day-to-day routine of life, we may feel we are continually fighting our desires for what we really want.   But doing so, he argues, is irrational and a huge waste of energy and resources, for it is pleasure and desire that underlie all our decisions and actions, and, therefore, our experiences.

“Pleasure, desire and the partnership between our brain, body and environment enable us to reproduce and survive,” says Kringelbach, whose research focuses on understanding consciousness and unconscious processing in the human brain, particularly as it relates to pleasure, desire, learning, and hedonic processing.

So what furnishes pleasure in the brain? Emotions, language, sex, memories and learning; and humans have the capacity for ‘higher order’ pleasures such as money, art, music, altruism and spirituality. Mental illness such as depression, however, deprives people of pleasure, suggesting that the reward systems of the brain have become unbalanced. 

Pain and pleasure are closely linked, the avoidance of pain being the corollary of pleasure. “Pain scares us almost more than anything else,” says Kringelbach. He describes his research in this field and how, for example, deep brain stimulation whereby electrodes placed directly into the brain can directly alleviate chronic pain and may one day lead to new treatments.

He has written a new book, The Pleasure Centre, though it is not a quick fix to happiness. Weaving history, case studies, evolution and brain research together, Kringelbach offers a new meaning to our natural desires and what makes us human. Technological progress has taken neuroscientists to the threshold of improving our understanding of human nature. 

“We will need patience and control of our more destructive desires and pleasures if we are to successfully face tomorrow’s hard challenges: over-population, climate change and artificial intelligence. Human nature and the tragic miracle of consciousness will undoubtedly be tested to the fullest,” concludes Kringelbach.

The Pleasure Centre - Trust Your Animal Instincts, ISBN 978-0-19-532285-9