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.



  1. What about other forms of self manipulation; programming your iPhone to give you a quick fix after completing a challenging run or puzzle for instance. I can see potential for this being a tool for learning and positive behavior modification if used properly. But then I've never been exposed to such intense pleasure stimulation myself... sigh.

  2. This is an excellent tool for Social Control. Make chip implantation mandatory, give the implantee a good jolt to get them hooked, and then dispense Pleasure in accordance with the implantee's general compliance.

    I'm sure a Pain Chip can also be developed to round out the paradigm.

    "Oh, brave new world!"

  3. Anonymous3:00 AM

    the prohibition of drugs only lead to a huge prison problem and billions of dollars going in the pocket of thugs.

    Banning these devices would only add to that problem without really keeping the people who want to get their hands on one from doing so.

    A more long-term solution would be figuring out a way for humans to be able to handle these things we haven't evolved to deal with without the negative side-effects.

  4. Anonymous6:54 AM

    I think you're right that such a device would be rather analogous to an addictive drug. Some people would get addicted and drop out of active participation in society; most would have enough sense to avoid using it, at least past the point where they could handle it.

    (And as with addictive drugs, banning the chips would not make them unavailable; it would just guarantee the growth of a black market and criminal gangs to supply it, along with a dangerous lack of quality control.)

    I don't think it would ever become a substitute for actual sex, though. Sexual gratification depends on a whole slew of psychological factors in addition to just the physical sensations, otherwise everyone would just masturbate all the time rather than engaging in the much more complex and demanding social behaviors required to have sex with other humans. Only when virtual reality can perfectly replicate the whole actual experience will technology replace real sex.

    Make chip implantation mandatory, give the implantee a good jolt to get them hooked, and then dispense Pleasure in accordance with the implantee's general compliance. I'm sure a Pain Chip can also be developed to round out the paradigm.

    One could say the same of heroin and electric cattle prods, and of course the "pain" side of the equation has long been used against dissidents, in the Dark Ages and in modern totalitarian states. The reason it won't happen here is not that it's technically infeasible, but that the culture and political system would reject it.

    Even in a place like North Korea, it's hard to picture. Pleasure-chip junkies would make pretty useless slaves, and totalitarians tend to be uptight stoic types uncomfortable with pleasure in any form. They won't reach for a carrot when they've got the stick of old-fashioned prison and torture.

  5. Devices such as those could be used as a form of punishment, for example a sex offender could be made addicted to one of those machines for the first quarter of his sentence, and then denied it for the remaining three quarters. It would be karmic retribution.

  6. I propose a rule-of-thumb for dividing allowed from not-allowed: no brain stim device should permit you to get something without working for it, nor obtain the result in a way that's more impersonal or less nuanced than the original. So a sex enhancer is OK, but a press-here-to-orgasm button isn't, and the sex enhancer would have to mimic the body's proportional response rather than having a sudden switch-on, and it would have to enhance physical touch rather than having a dial or something.

  7. well put jenifer! :)

  8. ZarPaulus:

    The right way of dealing with sex offenders is not to devise new ways of dishing out "karmic retribution". There may be ways of helping them neurologically, but mere punishment with no intention of meting out anything but more pain isn't going to change them.

  9. David Pearce6:21 AM

    Intuitively, there is a tradeoff between hedonistic pleasure-seeking and social responsibility / intellectual development. Perhaps the use of sexchips and their equivalent should indeed be postponed until our declining years, as noted above. But there is an alternative. Instead, should we aim to redesign our reward circuitry so that we can all responsibly enjoy sublime bliss while in the prime of life? In theory, understanding the neural basis of pleasure should allow us to rewire our reward centres, and allow us to "re-encephalise" our emotions.

    Imagine, for instance, if you derived supreme pleasure from altruistic behaviour, so that you spent your whole life compulsively helping others (cf. being chronically "loved up" on MDMA /Ecstasy minus the neurotoxicity). Or imagine if you always had an orgasmic epiphany when solving mathematical equations.

    I think there is an important distinction between jamming our hedonic volume switch on a permanent maximum - i.e. indiscriminate stimulation of the pleasure centres via sexchips and wireheading - and recalibration of our normal "hedonic set-point" that shapes how happy (or miserable) we are over the course of a lifetime. Critically, enjoying permanent bliss needn't be the same as enjoying permanent uniform bliss. So if, as a species, we opt to recalibrate our hedonic set-point (i.e. global mood-enrichment) then we can abolish suffering and still evolve - and still experience life's peaks and dips - but on a blissfully higher plane of existence.

  10. Well said Dave!

    It's important to remember that human motivation is already derived from the pleasure pain axis. If we could intelligently tweak this system, it would be possible to have enhanced motivation for all of the virtuous things in life.

  11. As a interventional pain physician who implants spinal cord stimulators for chronic pain, occasionally, when altering the current and width of the current of the stimulator to cover the patient's low back pain, the stimulation program will cover part of the genitalia. This is perceived as very enjoyable. It seems to be more of an enjoyable effect for women. If the eventual setting does not include this area, the patient will often ask for this "special program" option so that they can use it for self-stim so to speak, even though it is a setting unrelated to treating their pain.

  12. i think there is much MUCH interesting experimentation to do on human beings. of course, the powerful and possibly evil person(s) that eventually experiminet at length on people with wireheading may be conceived of as nazis or , if regulated and overseen, as corporate evil profit motivated types, however,

    wireheading in its simplistic form simply overstimulates a certain area as we have previously seen. this is really only a crewd approach of what lies ahead with multiple invasive elctrode technology, that possesses advanced plasticity modeled into the hardwwear itself. evnetually advnaced styled eltrodes will literally have the capacity to grow into our brains and manipulate them on every more sublte and complex levels.

    while most of the 'brain-mind interfaces' BMI that we have now focus on non-invasive 'transcranial te3chnology' it is obvious that none of these will ever truly enable machines to maniuplate minds so much as enabling minds to manipulate machines..i.e. advanced prosthesis control, verbalization readings, and magnetic stimulation (whihc i think is a dead end personally)
    it will be some time, but i think too many of the moral questions we are asking, and the judgments we pressume to make given the parameters of our hypotheticals are just too premature.

    wireheading in its primitive form (as seen in mice) has been around for a long time. it is an amphetamine type drug as we can see. perhaps an uber-amphetamine in its effects behaviorally, if not chemically as well. this is just too simple and really not a good baseline for trying to predict where developments of invasive electrodes will take us
    in the distant to not so distant future. ( research money right now is not being poured into the invasive electrode development so much as the non-invasive technologies. ).

    i really believe these discussion are destined to be outdated by technological developments.

  13. Eventually I see it leading to a machine that lets you experience anything you want objectively.

  14. This reminds me of the "tasp", from Larry Niven's 1970 SF novel Ringworld.

    Wikipedia: "The tasp, a device that induces a state of extreme pleasure in the pleasure center of the brain at the push of a button; it is used as a method of debilitating its target and is extremely addictive. If the subject cannot, for whatever reason, get access to the device, intense depression can result, often to the point of madness or suicide."

    Also, it reminds me of the "soma" drug in Aldous Huxley's 1931 novel Brave New World.

    In both fictional worlds, the tasp and soma were primarily used as social control mechanisms rather than for hedonism. There will always be the Pusher who stands to gain from the addiction.

  15. It's true that a world whose agents are animated by pleasure gradients will still have the functional equivalent of aversive experience. Yet the "raw feel" of such states may still be more wonderful than anything physiologically possible today.
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