A Practical Lesson in Neurobiology

Your brain is made up of lots of different neural clusters and systems.  There’s three that are interesting to note:

  • The Lateral Hypothalamus
    This portion of the brain deals with desire. The more activity here, in general, the stronger that desire.
  • The Nucleus Accumbens
    Here, pleasure is centered. The more activity here, the more you are enjoying what you are experiencing.
  • The Serotonin system
    Between neurons, there are gaps, synapses, where chemicals are secreted and taken up again. The release and absorption of the chemical, serotonin, stabilizes mood. Drugs like Prozac prevent neurons from re-absorbing serotonin they have secreted before transferring it to other neurons, which can help stabilize mood.

Now, the significant issue regarding these three structures is that they’re not exactly connected in a direct fashion. They certainly have influence on one another, but it’s not like one causes the next to act up, which causes the next to act up. Desires activated or satisfied might bring pleasure, but there are times when it might not. Pleasure can affect your mood, but it’s not guaranteed, and it might affect it differently than you expect. To simplify – what you want won’t necessarily be what you like, and what you like doesn’t necessarily make you happy.

We have this idea in our heads, and our economy with its invisible hand only heightens this, that getting what you want is what will bring about happiness, and that makes it inherently good. Both of those are kind of flawed. Getting what we want doesn’t make us happy, and being happy isn’t necessarily good either. The same is true of pleasure – it doesn’t generate happiness and isn’t inherently good, though I think many Christians are suspicious of pleasure already.

In purely neurological terms, we need to be careful to separate out our desires, pleasures, and happiness. They’re interrelated, but it’s not a simple system. In fact, it could well be that the more we slake our desires, the stronger our lateral hypothalamus will become, meaning that we just want more, making our desires more frequent and harder to satisfy, all without actually making us feel any happier. Pleasure can actually backfire, sometimes making us less happy. Joy is not a fruit of satisfied wants.

In moral terms, we need to disconnect desire and pleasure from moral qualities. I don’t think we necessarily connect our desires or enjoyment intentionally or consciously to moral qualities, but it can sneak in. Pleasure or satisfaction or desire is neither good nor bad. Having our desires left unmet is also neither good nor bad. It depends on the context and what God has for us in the moment. Our tendency to assign good or bad-ness to these things can easily be mistaken and lead us away from God’s call.

In spiritual terms, we need a plum line, a standard for what is morally good. There is a tendency to place happiness or satisfaction or pleasure as the standard without really thinking about it, but you can be exceedingly happy and also a completely horrible person. The call from scripture is fairly clear – the standard is love, love for God and for people (of which, by the way, you are one). If you were alone in a universe without God, it is exceedingly difficult to say very many things are good or bad, but once you add another person, the lines become clearer. We are relational beings meant for love, and that love is the ground of goodness.

Now, happiness is not a bad thing. It’s not the highest good, but it is good. But desire and pleasure are not the means by which it is discovered. If joy is a fruit of the spirit, then happiness will likely be aligned with that standard that God laid out. Happiness will come from love, love given and received. When we’re unhappy, it’s not that we aren’t feeling good or getting what we want necessarily; it has more to do with some kind of breakdown in giving and receiving love.

So in what ways do you connect desire and pleasure to happiness, intentionally or not? In what ways do you mistake happiness or pleasure for virtue or God’s approval? What would God say if you asked Him if there are there ways that you’re caught trying to satisfy or stifle desires in ways that don’t lead to love and to God?

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