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The Case for Hedonic Engineering

“Hedonic engineering” can be defined as development of a hypothetical highly advanced biotechnology, preferably in the form of gene therapies, targeted to specific structures, nuclei and cell types of the human brain, with the aim of radical enhancement of human emotional and hedonic capacities. Such therapies would be designed to modulate the excitability of the so-called “hedonic hotspots” in order to elevate (what is presently considered) the normal mood far beyond the level of today’s highest peak experiences. With biomanipulation it should be possible to produce sustainable and profound changes in the function and activation states of the emotional networks in the brain, and therefore accomplish a great boost in the quality of everyday experiences – while not only keeping the cognitive processes intact, but also enhancing the abilities for rational thought, focus and creativity.

What would be the concrete goals of hedonic engineering?

a) Elimination of human suffering and dysfunctional behaviors, augmentation of all positive affective states. Rooting out depression (as one of the extremes of human suffering) from the human emotional repertoire entirely, and elevation of the hedonic setpoint – a basal level of pleasure and motivation that is maintained in the “background” of our everyday lives, in the absence of particularly intense positive or negative stimuli, around which all our experiences oscillate (peaks and troughs of life).

b) Stable and lasting, highly elevated mood coupled with the sensations of warmth, satisfaction, vigor and happiness just for being alive. Hedonic engineering would be able to stabilize human experience in the state of permanent positive, blissful mood, far more intense and more beautiful than anything imaginable today.

c) Ability to sustain strong feelings of motivation, interest, fascination, curiosity, amazement, creative drive, sexual desire, and feelings of meaning and purpose – with the maximally expanded range of activities experienced as interesting and exciting. (Appetitive motivation, “wanting”)

d) Ability to sustain intense sensations of pleasure with the maximally expanded range of activities experienced as pleasant. Increased capacities for aesthetic pleasure, increased ability to enjoy intellectual work, acquisition of knowledge, creation and innovation, participation and social interaction, expression of thought and feelings. Elevated capacity for love, tenderness, for sensuality and sexuality, for pleasure in physical activity, in play and recreation, in food and drink.. (Pleasure, “liking”)

e) Strong feelings of empathy, capacity for the experience of trust, warmth and intimacy.

Positive and productive emotional states should penetrate every single moment of human existence. Moments of boredom, “deadness” and “greyness” should be wiped out from our lives. Normal, basal mood should rise to the level of pure ecstasy, far more intense than any peak experience imaginable today. Every aspect of the outer and inner human reality should gain emotional color and weight, everything should become meaningful, interesting and motivating, everything should stimulate exciting, creative and complex thought.

Positive affective states that drive everyday behavior of normal, euthymic individuals are usually weak and mostly incomparable to their hedonic and motivational peaks, like sexual excitement, orgasm or feeling of “being in love”. Average human emotions are pale, “anemic” and shallow in comparison to the peaks of passion that can be experienced only a few times in a lifetime. Most of human life is usually spent in the affective stupor, wasted on the half-conscious state of routine and “functioning”. However, it doesn’t have to be that way. The very existence of intense pleasures like orgasm clearly shows that something far greater is possible. Subjective feelings are not intrinsically and inseparably tied to any specific stimuli, nor to any sensory modality within which they appear. Theoretically, it should be possible to rewire cortical projections and modify the pleasure centers in the way that would link positive anticipation and excitement – equal in intensity to sexual drives – to intellectual activity, and ensure that pleasure equal to orgasm in strength rewards every – even the smallest – result of mental effort. Such feelings would be entirely non-sexual and would resemble euphoria or the mental ecstasy, depending on the type of activity, invested effort, and the accomplished result. They could also be engineered to lack any significant somatic, distraction-producing component.

Only a tiny minority of people today is capable of sustaining an intrinsic motivation adequate for mastering complex subjects like natural sciences, while for the majority of people a system of extrinsic rewards and punishments is necessary. Inclinations towards the complex fields of science and technology are usually developed early in the life of rare gifted individuals, while for the most people such interests never outgrow childish dreams and curiosities, and never become a significant force driving their education and career. Consistent learning and exercising creativity in challenging fields is hard and the progress is slow, while the pleasure derived from it almost never approaches the level of even the simplest of life pleasures like those in food, recreation, play and social interaction. Indeed, to many people education stands only for pain and frustration, and for the most, a profession is only a way to make money instead of a life calling. There is a disappointingly small number of children that spontaneously begin expressing strong interest for demanding subjects, that rather study and write than kick a football in the playing field. The reason for that lies in our past. Humans have not evolved as mathematicians, historians or economists, but rather as hunters & gatherers, warriors, explorers and adventurers. Behaviors that come naturally to us are exactly the ones that modern society attempts to suppress under all costs. Men are naturally fascinated with combat, hunting and danger. Natural behaviors of boys are fights, exploration, war games, building of simple weapons, and formation of aggressive groups that seek conflicts with other groups. Natural behaviors of girls, on the other hand, involve activities necessitating patience and precision, for example preparation of food and manufacture of simple ornamental objects. During our evolution, children never had to sit quietly for hours in boring classrooms, they never had to spend a lot of time indoors under coercion and threats, under tyranny of deadlines and schedules. Humans never had to study consciously, never had to solve mathematical equations or produce objects more complex than bow and arrow. Although we were up to such tasks intellectually, for the lack of evolutionary pressures adequate motivations and intrinsic rewards have never developed. Without human needs for security, economic well-being and desire for higher status, education would have been a utopian goal.

Humans are characterized by a fundamental lack of adaptation to a life in modern civilization. Society cannot be adapted for human needs any more; the only form of society truly in tune with human nature would be a group of hunter-gatherers. Basic characteristics of human nature, like territorial, sexual, competitive and vengeful aggression, ethnocentrism, xenophobia, neophobia and intolerance, envy, narrow circle of empathy, drive for power and status, adrenalin-seeking, inclinations towards mystical and irrational beliefs, are entirely incompatible with the needs of rapidly advancing, highly technological and globalized world. The most important activities in our modern society, the ones that are the key for personal success and happiness, are also the ones that receive almost no help at all from our natural drives and intuitions – the ones that we feel the least motivated for, the ones that provide us with the least amount of pleasure and comfort. Although there is no individual or social phenomenon that isn’t, directly or indirectly, determined by some of the basic aspects of human nature, our natural motives provide an extremely poor fuel for the growth of civilization. To that realization also points the fact that in 10 000 years since the birth of civilization, true progress in the quality of life for the average human being has only started to become evident in the last 200 years. Human history has been described as history of spilling blood, tears and sweat. Advances in scientific discoveries, technological and social solutions were made slowly and pioneers of progress always faced fierce resistance from human natural intuitions, beliefs, fears and general ignorance. Even today, the major brakes on progress are still irrationality, fear of change, lack of interest in education, mysticism, tribe mentality, authoritarianism, being at peace with the “status quo”, idealization of natural, depression and passive attitudes towards politics and progress, lack of empathy and altruism, egotism and greed.

Running on economic competition, on desires for the acquisition of wealth and drives for higher social status as its main fuels, modern society has attained a high level of technological growth. Unlike it’s technology, however, humanity hasn’t advanced much. Human mental and physical abilities in the 21. century still aren’t much above those of Pleistocene hunter-gatherers that feasted on woolly mammoths and painted cave walls. Man is still basically a primitive animal that lives in a technological cage of its own creation. In spite of all the progress, there is no reason to believe we are happier than our distant ancestors.

Emotional misadaptation in the modern world results in suffering. In the absence of thrills and sources of pleasure that characterized early human existence, in the situation where most needs are satisfied only indirectly, where pain can’t be expressed and stress can’t be acted upon (by fight or flight), and where there is marked powerlessness of individual compared to society, many people don’t feel “alive enough”. Global capitalism provides us with the examples of extreme success, wealth and fantastical possibilities for meaningful work and entertainment that are still unavailable to great majority of people. As a result of this chronic gap between dreams and reality, a large number of individuals experiences frustration and “social defeat”, which slowly pushes them into mild depression. Incidence of depression rises and it has been predicted that this illness will become the leading cause of work disability by 2020. On the other side, a small minority of highly successful professionals manifests enviable motivation, energy and ability to deeply enjoy work they consider a “true calling”. Most talented and productive people claim that the key for happiness and success in life is the ability to retain curiosity and fascination with the world around yourself, to feel constant passion for research, for knowledge and creation. How can they sustain these passions and others can’t? A logical answer is that it’s because people are not born equal, but are rather endowed with different mental and emotional capacities. A huge body of research shows that personality traits and mental abilities are highly heritable. From the large pool of possible variations, a small percentage of individuals inherited a lucky combination of traits that made them highly functional and successful. People differ widely in their abilities to experience pleasure, motivation and interest, just as they differ in their abilities for concentration, memorizing, in verbal fluency, in social skills, or mathematical skills. Obviously, individuals with lower hedonic set-points will be less happy, just as individuals with the “wrong feelings”. On the one end of the spectrum, there are people who suffer from intense, agonizing treatment-resistant depression, whose every day is a true hell on earth. On the other end, there are hyperthymic or hypomanic people who enjoy high levels of energy and satisfaction, and experience powerful drive towards success. However, even the differences within the limits of psychological normalcy are substantial enough to secure happiness for some, and condemn others to chronic failure and frustration.

Modern capitalism in the prosperous western countries is often portrayed by its proponents as a system of great opportunities that provides everyone with equal chances. It is usually said that there is no level of wealth and success that an ordinary individual, on the basis of exceptional effort, would not be able to attain. However, it is still pointless to insist on “equal chances”. That’s because people are not born equal. Success and happiness of an individual is not ultimately determined by his environment; it’s not determined by economic situation nor by parental nurture. “Equal chances”, for the term to have sense, would have to mean not just equal starting conditions and opportunities in life, but also equal abilities. Nature, of course, is not equally generous to all. In fact, there is nothing so unjust, so cruel and blind as is the “natural order of things”. Many people, unfortunately, idealize “natural” and speak of nature as of some deity that we should all submit to and offer sacrifice to. In the mind of some people, evolution has optimized everything so well that any interference in the “natural design” can only produce disaster. This is simply wrong. Evolution is blind, wasteful, slow and cruel, it doesn’t try to fulfill any purpose and it doesn’t result with “universal perfection”. Evolution is not progress either, it is just the process of adaptation to specific conditions, driven by natural selection. Human brain is not a perfect design, it’s only a product of long-term adaptation to a specific way of life in a specific environment. Evolution couldn’t care less about our happiness or suffering. Our mental capacities did not develop so that we could understand the fabric of the cosmos, nor did our emotions come to be what they are so that we would be happy (or unhappy). Traits that are selected for are the ones that provide advantage in the struggle for survival and reproduction. During our evolution, negative affective states often had a far greater role in promoting survival than positive states, because it was more important to escape a predator or defend oneself successfully than to exploit every single opportunity for feeding or sex. There will always be a second chance for obtaining a meal or finding a mate, but there probably won’t be a second chance for saving your life. That’s why no positive emotion can match the intensity and duration of strong fear, anger or deep sadness. Psychiatric disorders of mood and emotion defined by negative emotions running wild (deep persistent anxiety, anger problems, sadness, agonizing chronic depression) are too common, while the ones where positive mood is elevated (hyperthymia, hypomania) are extremely rare. This also points to the conclusion that our brains are biased towards suffering.

Many aversive states can serve an adaptive role during mammal evolution. For instance, chronically anxious mothers might be more successful in protecting their offspring from danger. Depression can be adaptive for pack or herd animals. When strong alpha males rule the pack, weaker males sometimes transition into the state of behavioral passivity, which helps them avoid potentially harmful conflicts with dominant individuals. Depression-like behaviors are also adaptive in the conditions of scarcity, when it is necessary to conserve energy instead of wasting it on non-survival related behaviors.

Nature is extremely ungenerous on pleasure. The entire hedonic spectrum known to un-enhanced humans is only the tiny piece of what is possible. This is clearly shown by some emotional peaks that are rarely experienced, as well as by many psychotropic substances. Cocaine and amphetamines cast off depression instantly and produce a highly energized state of euphoria where everything seems colorful, exceptionally interesting, exciting, meaningful and important. Other drugs, like MDMA and GHB, induce euphoria, feelings of well-being, intense empathy and connectedness (thus called “empathogens”), while the effects of opioid substances include pleasure, analgesia and sedation. While they last, such effects are more pleasant than anything possible in the natural, drug-free mental states. Why is this so? Why can’t we enjoy sustainable natural “highs”? The answer is that well-being beyond certain point was simply maladaptive during our evolution, and mechanisms of “hedonic treadmill” had to develop – to ensure that mood always consistently returns to the genetically predetermined, basal level – the hedonic set-point. Like a hedonic “thermostat” or a “hedostat”, this mechanism provides a constant suppression of perturbations in this basic hedonic state, extinguishing both intense happiness and intense pain. Unfortunately, it seems that the set-point is often located “off-center”, lower in the mood spectrum, closer to the suffering end.

All pleasures – natural or induced – create tolerance and adaptation. Natural stimuli, just like synthetic drugs, activate the same neurobiological negative-feedback mechanisms in the pleasure centers of the brain – receptor desensitization and internalization, dendritic arborization (branching) and the kappa/ dynorphin system which provides inhibition to dopamine neurons. Hedonic set-point is highly stable. Our neurobiology doesn’t allow us to change our basic level of happiness, no matter how hard we try. Neither the most beautiful experiences, nor the worst traumatic events in life, do not permanently influence the hedonic treadmill. The initial exhilaration of lottery winners gradually diminishes, and their mood returns to their normal level, leaving them no happier then they were before. Horrible trauma, like a quadriplegia-inducing accident, can result with a suicidal depression in many cases. However, research has shown that patients usually return to their normal, pre-accident mood within six months after the trauma, without a significant effect on their long-term life satisfaction.

Psychotropic drugs are toxic and addictive precisely because they “hack” into the neurobiological hedonic control centers, and switch them to the “overdrive”. Short lasting but intense positive affective states induced by drugs overstimulate the feedback system which quickly turns emotional “peaks” into “troughs”, producing unpleasant symptoms of withdrawal. The same happens to the natural pleasures, although to a lesser degree. Passion of a love-affair gradually wanes away, until it turns to boredom and frustration, and comes “crashing down”. A favorite movie is little less exciting each time it is repeated, experience is weaker, until the point where it makes no sense to watch it again. We get used to the changes for the better. Excitement and fascination in professional fields, just as in hobbies, sports and entertainment, social interaction or travel – slowly diminish to low and stable levels, and one never captures the original feeling again. Everything in life comes down, eventually even the life itself.

Hedonic treadmill is important. It suppresses repetitive behaviors and forces us to constantly seek new and different sources of stimulation. However, there is no fundamental reason why this basal, stable level of un/happiness that we always return to couldn’t be set much higher. If we recalibrated our hedonic set-points, adjusting them to a much higher value, we would still seek novelty and progress, but in the same time we would be much, much happier with what we already have. Our normal moods would match the most beautiful experiences of present, and our stimulus-driven feelings and peak pleasures would go beyond anything imaginable today.

The capacities for happiness and satisfaction in life are set to different levels in different individuals. We are not born equal, and we cannot all be equally happy. Nature, sometimes in combination with nurture, has set for each individual how happy, how motivated and creative he can be, just as how intelligent he can be and how much focus he can achieve. Some are endowed with strong curiosity and energy, and later they become successful scientists, engineers or artists that deeply enjoy their lives and their work. Others can’t get enough motivation for even the simplest of activities and are destined to a lifetime of failure and poverty. Some people spend their lives in severe agonizing depression, unable to experience any joy, any positive desire, any meaning. The moments of pleasure are almost non-existent for them, their minds are consumed by all-pervasive, intense sensations of emptiness and pain. In some cases, they can’t even speak, eat or get out of bed, and they must be fed artificially. On the other hand, people suffering from mild to moderate depression can be relatively functional, although unhappy, particularly if driven by anxiety. Dysthymic individuals, although less affected than depressive ones, suffer from a chronic low mood, but usually don’t seek treatment, unaware that better life is even possible.

There is a grave injustice in the natural state of things. Human life is a deep tragedy, filled with meaningless pain and suffering, ending with meaningless death – into the oblivion. During our history, countless generations of miserable, powerless people lived their short lives of poverty, disease, back-breaking labor, oppression and sometimes unimaginable cruelty. The were born to suffer and die without any real chance, without any realistic hope. They couldn’t create anything or influence anything; they left nothing behind, it is like they never existed in the first place. We think of them as of “historical masses”, but they were individuals whose lives were as real as ours today. They are gone forever now – we can never make things right for them. But maybe we can help people who are suffering today. We are not helpless against the injustice of nature any more. We live in the time when we finally hold enough knowledge and enough technological power to start resisting the tyranny of natural forces and limitations, and take control of our own evolution. Neuroscience and biotechnology provide us with the means to sabotage the hedonic treadmill, root out human suffering and secure emotional well-being for all. There is no reason why states of extreme happiness – with adequate biomedical manipulations – couldn’t eventually be made sustainable in the human mind. If the worst forms of pain and suffering can be maintained for months, years, even lifetimes, why couldn’t happiness be? There is no physical law that would prevent it. Engineering of human nature is possible, necessary and desirable. Even more – it is a moral priority.