Dr Arch Hart - Thrilling ourselves to death - Hope 103.2

Dr Arch Hart – Thrilling ourselves to death

We have more access to pleasure than any other society in history, yet we’re enjoying it less and less. The reason? We’re overloading the brain’s pleasure circuits to the point of exhaustion.

By Sheridan VoyseyThursday 2 May 2013Open House InterviewsHealth and WellbeingReading Time: 10 minutes

Dr Archibald Hart is a clinical psychologist and Senior Professor of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary in California. He joined us to discuss his book Thrilled to Death: How the Endless Pursuit of Pleasure Is Leaving Us Numb. After reading Arch’s thoughts, you may indeed put the iPod in the bottom draw.

How did you first come across this idea that we were ‘thrilling’ ourselves to death?

It started about fourteen years ago when I was asked to do some research in cocaine addiction. Up to that point I hadn’t paid much attention to a part of the brain called the pleasure centre. A cocaine addiction is the most powerful hijacker of our pleasure centre; when you have that level of addiction, nothing else can give you pleasure. But as I began to explore this further, I realised that since the advent of the internet and computer games, young people in particular are flooding this pleasure centre with excitement and stimulation, to the extent that they are becoming bored and unable to experience pleasure in little things because their pleasure centres are shutting down. 

A whole slew of research has come out in the last few years warning us that excitement is a dangerous drug. In a time when our children today can probably experience more excitement than ever before in history, it is a growing concern among psychologists and others that we are doing something harmful without realising it.

How do you know when this pleasure centre is actually being exhausted?

You become, to use the technical term, anhedonic—you can no longer experience pleasure in little things. I have a number of grandchildren, and the most common expression I hear from them is, ‘I’m bored. Can we go to the mall?’ They’re constantly seeking some sort of stimulation, and they can’t take pleasure in the simple things in their lives. They want iPods, cell phones and computer games. 

It’s becoming increasingly obvious that by shutting down their pleasure centre by over-stimulating it, we’re also making them more vulnerable to addictive behaviour. When you flood this pleasure system, you create a higher likelihood of someone then turning to something addictive in order to give them a higher level of high.

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How does this manifest in adults? 

We are constantly being stimulated. I get on a plane these days to fly somewhere and almost half the people on the plane have a Bluetooth earpiece on their ear for their cell phone. The iPods are playing music constantly. I even hear church pastors saying they don’t feel any joy in God any more. We are becoming increasingly anhedonic.

Is anhedonia primarily a technology-driven problem?

To some extent, yes—it’s these new technologies that now give us the ability to be constantly stimulated. The term ‘digital junkie’ has now been coined. I often say that anything that’s got a computer chip in it is giving us the wrong kind of pleasure because it’s destroying our ability to relate to one another. 

Whenever my two granddaughters have an argument these days, they each go to their own bedroom and then they text message each other. They don’t go and sit down face to face and talk things out; they retreat. The other day I heard of a group of young people who encourage each other to listen to their iPods all night as they’re sleeping because they can’t tolerate silence. 

Also, multitasking is now so high. I went over to see my granddaughter the other day and found her doing her homework on a computer. She had the computer screen split into two: she was writing an essay on the left side and on the right side was instant messaging someone. In her left ear she had her cell phone piece on, talking to someone; in her right ear she had her iPod on, listening to music. And all of this while she was watching television.

[Laughter]

So I said to her, ‘Caitlyn, how can you learn anything by doing that?’ She said, ‘Oh Poppa, you don’t understand.’

[Laughter] 

Taken together, though, the cumulative effect of these things can be quite devastating.

When you talk about the use of the internet and the whole issue of being over stimulated, pornography obviously comes to mind. Is there such a thing as sexual anhedonia?

Yes, there is. Even while I’ve been here I’ve had several women say to me, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with my husband. He has no interest in sex.’ The pleasure centre is so overloaded by these extraordinarily stimulating sexual images, whether pictures, videos or whatever, and with such a high level of stimulation you can only be satisfied with something giving you even more stimulation. So it’s unbalancing our pleasure system in a way that can be destructive to our marital relationship.

Arch, what is the correct place for pleasure then? Is pleasure better as a by-product than as a primary pursuit?

Well, let me put it another way. The brain is designed for pleasure. Pleasure is important. In the final analysis, I think, God probably put it there so we could take some pleasure in him. 

But we’ve identified two types of pleasure. There’s a type of pleasure that creates an addictive crisis that we call Type A pleasure. Anything that has a computer chip in it is giving you a Type A thrill. On the other hand, there are Type B pleasures, which come from natural sources. When a father says to his kids, ‘Come on, kids, turn off that television, turn off your computer games, let’s go outside and play some cricket’, that can be enormously pleasurable, and that pleasure is not damaging to our pleasure system. It’s the sort of natural pleasure we we’re designed for. If it’s people-related pleasure it’s usually Type B pleasure, and that’s healthy for us. 

If you’re a parent, direct the pleasures that you give your kids. Stop giving them gadgets and toys and interact with them socially instead. You provide them with pleasure that is infinitely more satisfying than the other. The problem with parents today is that they’re so busy. We’re all overextended. We’re only too glad if the kids have a computer game that is going to keep them occupied for the next few hours so we won’t be bothered. We will pay the price for that.

OK Arch, what can we do about this? How can we start to unwrap ourselves from this anhedonia complex?

There are several things you can do. First off, pursue the right sort of pleasure. I’m not suggesting that we shut down all computers and computer games; that’s ridiculous. It’s a matter of balance. 

I think parents need to exercise some discipline here. Tell your kids they must do their homework first and then they can play the computer game, but they can’t play computer games and do their homework at the same time. We need to go back to doing things together as a family. Playing games together as a family, playing cards together as a family, taking picnics together as a family, things that—well, certainly in the United States—very few people do any more. 

The second thing that one can do is learn to appreciate the pleasure in little things. Anhedonia shuts down your capacity to experience those things and you really have to discipline yourself to experience it again. Engage in activities that are less stimulating and more reflective. Instead of taking your iPod when you’re going for a walk, leave it behind. Tune back into nature; listen to the birds; pay attention to things around you.

How long will it take for the brain’s pleasure centre to respond and find pleasure in the small things again?

You know, it can take as long as it takes an addict to break their cocaine addiction. It’s the same addictive process involved, and you could be looking at six, nine, maybe twelve months before you begin returning to a point where little things give you pleasure again—where just playing with your grandchildren is enormously pleasurable, or where a child who constantly wants to go to the mall or do some stimulating activity is content to just sit and read something. It’s not something you can reverse overnight. This phenomenon of anhedonia has a neurological basis; it’s a flooding of certain neuron transmitters. All of that has to normalise.

What about humour?

Yes, humour is a wonderful medicine and scripture tells us so. There’s a lot of evidence to show that humour lowers your adrenalin and is an antidote for stress. It would be a Type B type of pleasure in that it is very, very good for you and actually tends to undo the damage of Type A pleasure. People differ in their ability to enjoy laughter and humour. There is even something called the Laughter Quotient, like we have an Intelligence Quotient. Raise your LQ: you’ll not only be a happier person but little things will give you more pleasure.

There’s a chapter in your book about appreciation and gratitude as well.

Yes, that’s big in psychology now. It’s amazing, you know. When I was a kid growing up, we used to sing a church chorus called ‘Count Your Blessings’. Now, the ability to count your blessings is a big thing in psychology. Look at your complex life with all your problems and find in it somewhere something you can be thankful for, something you can appreciate. It’s powerful; the psychologists call it a buffer against mental illness, yet it’s so simple. It’s hard to believe it’s taken us all these years in psychology to discover how important it is.

Psychology is following the Bible. 

You know, Sheridan, the other big thing in psychology right now is forgiveness. There are phenomenal research projects with enormous amounts of money available to both public- and private-funded institutions for psychologists to research how to foster a greater ability to forgive. Unforgiveness and resentment are very emotionally damaging.

This is nothing new to Christian believers. I have a friend in the United States who is a Christian. All his life his research has been in the area of forgiveness. He is now the star in the secular psychological world, whereas five years ago they wouldn’t have looked at him.

Have you done any research into spiritual disciplines and anhedonia? 

Not myself, but I have colleagues and others who have looked into this. There is no doubt that the worship experience generates a deep appreciation for what God has done. And when you experience that deep appreciation for God, it does wonderful things to your brain’s pleasure centre.

I have one concern, Sheridan. The spirituality in our churches in recent years has become stimulation-driven. What people want right now in their spiritual experience is a ‘wow!’ experience—a big thrill, big excitement. Well, guess what? Even though it is in the name of Jesus, that is still something that contributes to the overall over-excitement of your brain. And I am concerned that we don’t push the excitement level too high as we develop new forms of worship that can in fact work against us.

So church worship shouldn’t be only about the ‘wow!’ experiences; there should also be times for meditation and quietness, just focusing on God.

That’s correct. Again, the key word here is balance.

How have you brought simple things back into your own life, Arch? You’ve obviously got a busy life. You’ve sat on your fair share of planes and stared at a fair share of screens in front of you. How have you put this into practice yourself?

I was travelling in Europe a year ago, sitting on a train going through parts of Switzerland and Germany that I love very, very much and used to get so much pleasure from. I was sitting there and, you know what? I couldn’t have cared less. I felt numb. Nothing seemed to give me any pleasure, and I sat up with a start. Here I was, in the final stages of my book, and I realised how anhedonic I had become. Business can do that. It’s over–stimulation. 

With the help of my wife I am good at setting boundaries. I’ve come on this trip here, but I’ve turned down many others. It’s a matter of balance, of discipline, of being clear about what you want to do because you can’t do everything. Most important of all is to build into your life rest times; recovery times. I get to bed early. I get extra sleep whenever I possibly can. My wife will tell you that I am pretty disciplined with self-management and self-care. And that really is the secret.