The Guess Worker

Pain and pleasure


  • Pleasure doesn´t motivate us directly but declining pleasure does.
  • Declining pleasure motivates because it is a type of pain.
  • Wants are also a type of pain.
  • Pain is the only feeling which motivates us.

Consciousness is a motivator. The two opposing instruments of motivation are the sensations of pain and pleasure. Pain is unpleasant and so makes us take actions to try to get rid of it. Pleasure is pleasant and so makes us take actions to try to obtain it.

Punishment and reward. The stick and the carrot. But we don't have to think much further to realise there is something wrong with this simple model. For a start, many of our actions don't seem to be motivated by either pain or pleasure. For most of us, getting dressed in the morning is neither a question of pain or pleasure. It's just something we do.

Then there are some pleasurable and painful emotions, such as satisfaction and depression, which instead of motivating us, appear to do the opposite. They demotivate us so that we don't take any further actions. On top of this some emotions - such as fear - on some occasions seem to motivate us and on other occasions demotivate us.

No gain with pleasure?

How can such contradictions be explained? To find an answer we first need to think a bit more about pain and pleasure. Without doubt in some situations pain motivates. Pain is unpleasant and so often does make us take actions to try to get rid of it. At the very least, then, we can say that pain frequently motivates us.

But what about pleasure? Here the picture is not as straightforward. Pleasure makes us take actions to try to obtain it. What happens, though, if we are already getting pleasure? How does getting that pleasure make us do more of what we were already doing? And if pleasure does make us seek more pleasure, how do we stop doing what we are doing? With pain we stop taking actions once the pain has ceased. Where does the endpoint come with pleasure? How much pleasure is enough to make us stop seeking more?

The answer may be some kind of feedback mechanism. As we do something pleasurable, in time the amount of pleasure from it decreases. This might mean that gradually we lose interest in doing that particular action. There is intuitive sense in this. Pleasurable activities do become less enjoyable as we do them more and may become odious if we do them too much. As Shakespeare wrote: "If all the year were playing holidays, to sport would be as tedious as to work."

But there is a problem. We might expect decreasing rewards from doing a particular action to make us do more of that action and not less. Just as a drug addict is forced to take larger and larger doses to get a high, we might be motivated to repeat the same actions but with increasing intensity to get the same pleasure. What would prevent us from doing that?

All this possibly could be explained by further feedback mechanisms. Our model is getting complicated, though. Perhaps there is a simpler and more elegant solution. We can find it by thinking in detail about a pleasurable activity.

Strawberries and cream

Let's say I'm eating one of my favourite snacks - strawberries and cream. I am relishing them. I've just put a spoonful in my mouth. When I've swallowed my mouthful what makes me reach for another spoon? Is it pleasure? It doesn't seem very likely. I felt the maximum amount of pleasure while I was eating the first spoonful and not after I finished it. If pleasure was motivating me, I would stuff another spoon into my mouth the moment I felt pleasure. But instead I wait until I've finished my mouthful.* What then is motivating me?

After finishing the mouthful, the amount of pleasure I get from the strawberries must decrease substantially. Perhaps then, rather than pleasure, it is declining pleasure which makes me eat more. Could it be that pleasure doesn't motivate at all? In many ways this makes sense. The drug addict doesn't want another dose when he's on a high. He wants it when he's coming down.

It's the declining pleasure that makes him take more drugs. So, I believe, it is for all our actions. Pleasure is not a motivator. Pleasure never motivates us.

The pain's the same

If pleasure doesn't motivate, what does? We are left with two sensations: pain and "declining pleasure". How, though, could "declining pleasure" motivate? I believe it motivates because it is a type of pain. It is not pain in the ordinary sense of the word - that is, a painful sensation. But physiologically and biochemically "declining pleasure" is probably identical to an ordinary pain. It's just not as intense and so consciously it is registered only as a "want".

Is there any justification in believing that a want is a type of pain? There is, because wants which are not satisfied can easily become painful. As wants intensify they turn into desires and later into needs. These can be very unpleasant emotions. It might be hard to imagine how my not getting strawberries could be painful - but let's say I've been starved for a week and then am tantalised by the sight of some strawberries which I can't eat. Then I think we can say that my "want " for the strawberries is painful.

Normally, though, wants are not painful. Seeing as I have called wants "a type of pain", what I have to do, then, is define what I mean by the word "pain". For my purposes pain is every sensation ranging from the strongest physical pain, to itches and aches, to emotional pain to the slightest wants that we are barely aware of. All pains are to some degree unpleasant, although for the least intense pains we may not recognise this unpleasantness because it is minimal. Nevertheless even in these cases it is the unpleasantness which motivates us to take actions to get rid of the pain.

Flip sides of the same coin

So, pleasure can't motivate. "Declining pleasure" is a type of pain. This means that pain is only kind of sensation which motivates us. Pain, I believe, is the instrument of motivation for all our conscious actions. Every decision we make, every conscious thought we have, is motivated by pain. By pain and by nothing else.

Are there any clues as to what pain is and how it operates? Since pain has the same motivational function in a wide range of emotions and sensations, it seems likely that physiologically and biochemically pain is the same in all types of unpleasant experiences. What this would have to mean is that all unpleasant experiences have a "pain component" which is identical except in intensity. The pain of a broken leg, then, is the same as the pain of a broken heart.

There would also appear to be an inverse relationship between pain and pleasure. More pleasure means less pain and vice versa. If declining pleasure equals pain, does declining pain equal pleasure? It would seem likely. Perhaps pain and pleasure are flip sides of the same coin.

But if pleasure doesn´t motivate what does it do? Pleasure, of course, tells us that what we are doing is the right action (at least as far as the brain is concerned). Also - along with pain - pleasure helps us learn new concepts. How pain and pleasure do this will be the subject of future posts. Before I get to that stage, though, I have to understand more about how pain and pleasure work. So that is going to be the theme of the next few posts.



* I might stuff myself with food if I were very hungry. But it's not pleasure that's making me do this. By gorging I would get less pleasure (as far as my palate is concerned) than if I munched slowly. What is motivating here is hunger.

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