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Health Series: Research Spotlight

Can The Arts help counteract our pleasure-seeking obsessions?

Recent evidence suggests that The Arts can potentially counteracting the detrimental effects of activities that only give us a ‘pleasure kick’

by George Wigmore (Senior Communications Officer)

The Arts, and activities such as painting and dancing, could potentially help address society’s pleasure-seeking obsessions and lead us to better behaviour when it comes to our health, according to a new City, University of London review.

The paper, which is published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, suggests that while The Arts are often thought to be little more than worthwhile activities, recent evidence suggests that they can stimulate broad neural networks, potentially counteracting the detrimental effects of activities that only give us a ‘pleasure kick’.

Dr Julia F. Christensen, from the Cognitive Neuroscience Research Unit in Department of Psychology at City, University of London and author of the paper, said:

“Today’s society is pleasure seeking. We expect to obtain pleasurable experiences fast and easily. We are used to hyper-palatable foods and drinks, and we can get pornography, games and gadgets whenever we want them. The problem is that with this type of pleasure-maximising choice behaviour we may be turning ourselves into mindless pleasure junkies, handing over our free will for the next dopamine shoot as we prioritise activities, which like junk food, are deprived of any deeper meaning and nutritional value. But recent evidence suggests that The Arts can help counter this.”

Increasingly research is showing that in excess such ‘pleasure-only’ activities might have negative effects on our health as they provoke a change in the neural mechanisms underlying the choices we make in our life. The evidence shows that drug addictions and behavioural addictions rely on the same neural networks, as a result ‘pleasure-only’ activities effectively make us ‘pleasure-junkies’.

In this way many of today’s easy pleasures have the potential to create behavioural addictions. Activities that might cause behavioural addictions include smart phone social media app use (we are glued to the notification icon and ‘did I receive another like?’), gambling (‘I’ll win at the next game for sure!’), sports, pornography, hyper-palatable foods, gaming and the Internet.

This can lead to choice behaviour becoming biased towards short-term pleasure-maximizing goals. Seeking pleasure ‘here and now’, is a common feature of the addicted brain. Our decision-making shifts away from long-term prosperity and general well-being maximizing objectives, which is controlled by different set of systems in the brain.

In the healthy brain two basic systems interact in relation to reward and decision-making. The ‘A-system’ is concerned with maximizing immediate reward, while the ‘I-system’ is concerned with maximizing future reward and prosperity. The A-system wants pleasure immediately, while the I-system relates any stimuli to previous experience and value to foster optimal choices, ‘all things considered’. This may include down-regulation of the A-system, to defer immediate gratification to enable long-term reward.

It has been suggested that The Arts can help overwrite the detrimental effects of dysfunctional urges and craving which we experience when we engage with empty pleasure-only activities for too long. The arts focus our mind into one coherent state which activates the A- and I-systems alike.

In this way, the Arts might strengthen the links between the A- and the I-systems – which go via a neural structure called the insula. Strong links aid the maintenance of healthy bodily systems by maximising our choices so they ensure long-term prosperity. The evidence also suggests that engagement with The Arts might decrease the probability of developing behavioural addictions in the first place. Importantly, engagement with the arts demonstrably has the potential to engage both the A- and the I-systems in lay people and experts alike.

As a result we experience activities such as painting or dancing both as pleasurable and rewarding (via the A-system), but also as meaningful because they engage our previous personal memories and life experience, and our sense of self (I-system). The ‘arty experience’ is therefore not only fun, but actually good for our life in general.

Dr Christensen said:

“While there is more research to be done, what we’ve seen is that there is promising work showing the benefits of The Arts when it comes to countering the all-pervasive pleasure-seeking behaviours currently seen in society, many of which can have negative impacts on our lives. The best recommendation is to plan periods without the activities which have the potential to cause behavioural addictions. Our brain is not going to help us resist the temptation of the moment, so it’s better to plan in advance. Also, by involving ourselves more in The Arts, we can potentially counter some of the negative effects and engage our brains more broadly to live truly fulfilling and meaningful lives.”

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City, University of London is an independent member institution of the University of London. Established by Royal Charter in 1836, the University of London consists of 18 independent member institutions with outstanding global reputations and several prestigious central academic bodies and activities.