The Monet family in their garden at Argenteuil

The Pleasure of M&Ms and Monet

M&M SpokescandiesIs there any objective difference between the pleasure we feel in viewing Monet’s paintings or eating M&Ms? Perhaps this seems like an odd question. But it’s the subject of intense scientific controversy. And it’s relevant to our thinking about food.

Hungry for Pleasure

Julia Christensen started this scientific scuffle last year by publishing a provocative review and commentary. She titled it “Pleasure Junkies All Around!” Memorably, she proposed that we may be in danger of “handing over our free will for the next dopamine shoot.”

For people who are utterly convinced that obesity is driven by the addictive properties of sugar and junk food, her paper is a very satisfying read. You might call it a good fix of neuroscience to affirm those presumptions.

Higher Pleasures

Moving on from the problem, Christensen suggests that enjoyment of the arts might offer a model for more balanced choice behavior to replace purely hedonic pursuits. Art may be a solution, she said:

Engagement with the arts might be an activity with the potential to foster healthy choice behaviour – and not be just for pleasure. The evidence in this rather new field of research is still piecemeal and inconclusive. This review aims to motivate targeted research in this domain.

Where’s the Evidence?

Not so fast, say Marcos Nadal and Martin Skov in a new commentary. They suggest a danger in ignoring or rejecting evidence that doesn’t fit with preconceived notions about art. They say:

In sum, Christensen’s claim for the distinctiveness of pleasure from art is contradicted by empirical evidence, and her argument for the beneficial effects of art rests upon disputed foundations. Art’s capacity to promote healthier choices and make us better people that can contribute to a better society remains as unconfirmed today as it was when Schiller speculated on art’s power to harmonize human’s conflicting sensuous and formal impulses.

This debate is not over. As Nadal and Skov point out, we still know very little about the neuroscience of pleasure. The response to higher pleasures may be far more complex than we yet know. Deeper understanding of addictive behaviors has much to teach us.

And likewise, jumping to definitive conclusions about the addictive power of sugar and junk food presents the risk of leading us into misguided policies. We will do well to look before we leap.

Click here for Chrisensen’s paper and here for Nadal and Skov’s. For further perspective in the New York Times, click here.

The Monet family in their garden at Argenteuil, painting by Edouard Manet / WikiArt

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April 14, 2018

4 Responses to “The Pleasure of M&Ms and Monet”

  1. April 14, 2018 at 9:29 am, Robyn Flipse said:

    This debate seems to overlook the highly individualized responses to different sources of pleasure that people have in different cultures and the higher genetic risk of addiction that some people have.

  2. April 14, 2018 at 1:43 pm, David Stone said:

    If we do consider food, junk or otherwise, to be a pleasure drug for some, it’s a cruel one. Kicking the nicotine or heroin or alcohol habit seems to be best accomplished by divorce — 100% avoidance. Can’t do that with food.

  3. April 14, 2018 at 1:57 pm, Ted said:

    You’re right, David. That’s one reason why addiction is an imperfect model for understanding unhealthy eating patterns.

  4. April 14, 2018 at 1:59 pm, David Brown said:

    When the appetite control mechanism gets dis regulated, the problem is discomfort, not addiction to pleasure. The path to addiction begins with the decision to use some sort of substance to induce a state of euphoria. Addiction sets in when the pleasure seeker finds that he has to use the substance to keep from feeling bad. Neuroscience experts would do well to factor endocannabinoid system research into the equation. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16148436

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