Home Books Contact Site Map
 Wirehead Hedonism


ęCopyright 2002-2008
[Shawn Nacol]
All rights reserved

Wirehead Hedonism
The future of mankind ?

photograph of an intra-cranially self-stimulating rat

A rodent wirehead



"The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heaven"

Satan, in Milton's Paradise Lost


Within a few centuries, it will be technically if not ideologically feasible to abolish suffering of any kind. If we wish to do so, then genetic engineering and nanotechnology can potentially be used to banish unpleasant modes of consciousness from the living world. In their place, gradients of life-long, genetically pre-programmed well-being may animate us instead. Millennia if not centuries hence, the world's last aversive experience may even be a precisely dateable event: perhaps a minor pain in an obscure marine invertebrate.

Far-fetched? Right now, indeed, the abolitionist project sounds fanciful. The task of redesigning our legacy-wetware still seems daunting to most of us. Rewriting the vertebrate genome, and re-engineering the global ecosystem, certainly pose immense scientific challenges.

The ideological obstacles to a happy world, however, are more formidable. For we've learned how to rationalise the need for mental pain - even though its nastier varieties blight innumerable lives, and even though its very existence will soon become optional.

* * *

Today, any scientific blueprint for getting rid of suffering via biotechnology is likely to be reduced to one of two negative stereotypes. Both stereotypes are disturbing, pervasive, and profoundly ill-conceived. Together, they impoverish our notion of what a Post-Darwinian regime of life-long happiness might be like; and delay its prospect.


The first stereotype of a pain-free world centers on soma - Aldous Huxley's brilliantly-conceived but spurious evocation of the "ideal pleasure-drug":

"...Two thousand pharmacologists and bio-chemists were subsidized. Six years later it was being produced commercially. The perfect drug. Euphoric, narcotic, pleasantly hallucinant. All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects. Take a holiday from reality whenever you like, and come back without so much as a headache or a mythology. Stability was practically assured..."

Soma is taken by the brainwashed and manipulated dupes of the ruling genetic caste in Brave New World. A cross between a hangoverless tranquilliser and a non-addictive opiate, soma allows Huxley's utopians to enjoy (episodes of) imbecilic, drug-induced bliss to offset their empty consumerist lives. In BNW, soma is a pleasureable cure-all; but it underwrites a static, philistine, loveless society where intellectual progress of any kind has been abolished. Surely we don't want to end up as brave new worlders?

bulletThe second stereotype of life-long bliss strikes us as even more degrading than pharmacological hedonism. It features an intra-cranially self-stimulating rat. The little creature's enraptured frenzy of lever-pressing is eventually followed by death from inanition, self-neglect and immunological collapse. Not just rats, but also fish, chickens, rabbits, guinea pigs, cats, dogs, monkeys and humans have all been found to exhibit electrical self-stimulatory behaviour when given the opportunity to do so. The pleasure-pain axis is an invariant feature of the vertebrate line - and beyond.

In the case of humans, our reward-pathways are somewhat more anatomically diffuse than the average rodent. At least with present-day electrode-placement techniques, intra-cranial self-stimulation as practiced by laboratory humans doesn't lead to uncontrolled hedonistic excess and death. Only depressed or deeply malaise-ridden human subjects compulsively self-stimulate when wired. Ill-defined "ethical constraints", however, are commonly held to forbid its use rather than to mandate its widespread adoption and refinement - even by avowed utilitarians. So instead of using fellow humans, experimenters use rats. Pleasure-crazed rodents have become the symbolic expression of wirehead hedonism - and of all the pitfalls that "unnatural" pleasure entails.

Rats, of course, have a very poor image in our culture. Our mammalian cousins are still widely perceived as "vermin". Thus the sight of a blissed-out and manically self-stimulating rat does not inspire a sense of vicarious happiness in the rest of us. On the contrary, if achieving invincible well-being entails launching a program of world-wide wireheading - or its pharmacological and/or genetic counterparts - then most of us will recoil in distaste.

Yet the Olds' rat, and the image of electronically-triggered bliss, embody a morally catastrophic misconception of the spectrum of options for paradise-engineering in the aeons ahead. This is because the varieties of genetically-coded well-being on offer to our successors needn't be squalid or self-centred. Nor need they be insipid, empty and amoral Ó la Brave New World. Our future modes of well-being can be sublime, cerebral and empathetic.

In fact, instead of being toxic, exotically enriched states of consciousness can be transformed into the everyday norm of mental health. When it's precision-engineered, hedonic enrichment needn't lead to unbridled orgasmic frenzy. Nor need it entail getting stuck in a wirehead rut. This is because in a naturalistic setting, even the crudest dopaminergic drugs tend to increase exploratory behaviour, will-power and the range of stimuli an organism finds rewarding. Dopaminergics aren't just euphoriants: they also enhance "incentive-motivation". Thus our future is likely to be more diverse, not less.

Perhaps more surprisingly, controlled euphoria needn't be inherently "selfish" - i.e. hedonistic in the baser, egoistic sense. Non-neurotoxic and sustainable analogues of empathogen hug-drugs like MDMA ("Ecstasy") - which releases a lot of extra serotonin and some extra dopamine - may potentially induce extraordinary serenity, empathy and love for others. An arsenal of cognitive enhancers will make us smarter too. For being blissful isn't the same as being "blissed-out".

Ultimately, however, using drugs or electrodes for psychological superhealth is no better than taking medicines to promote physical superhealth. They can serve only as dirty and inelegant stopgaps. In an ideal world, our emotional, intellectual and physical well-being will be genetically predestined. It will be a design-feature of any Post-Darwinian mind. Indeed some futurists predict we will one day live in a paradise where suffering is physiologically inconceivable; a world where we can no more imagine what it is like to suffer than we can presently imagine what it is like to be a bat.

Today, of course, it is sublime bliss which is effectively inconceivable to most of us.



The story of the biochemical roots of paradise is illuminating, but not very edifying. In the 1950s, James Olds and his colleagues invented a procedure known as intracranial self-stimulation. By implanting a permanent thin wire-electrode in a rat's brain, the captive rodent was given the ability to self-administer a small electric shock. The current used is typically less than 0.0005 amperes. The pulse lasts for less than a second: the rodent wirehead must press the lever again to get another hit. Different placements of the electrode elicit different intensities of response. Rates of up to 10,000 bar-presses an hour may be recorded - but only for pulses delivered to the most rewarding brain-areas. An animal will self-stimulate for a whole day and night without rest, and cross a powerfully electrified grid, to gain access to the lever when its reward-centres are wired up.

Olds mapped the whole brain. Stimulation of some areas - the periaqueductal grey matter, for instance - proved aversive: an animal will work hard to avoid it. "Aversive" is probably a euphemism: electrical pulses to certain neural pathways may be terrifying or excruciating. Our victims are being tortured.

Happily, more regions in the brain are rewarding than unpleasant. Yet electrical stimulation of most areas, including the great bulk of the neocortex, is motivationally neutral.

One brain region in particular does seem especially rewarding: the medial forebrain bundle. The key neurons in this bundle originate in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) of the basal ganglia. VTA neurons manufacture the catecholamine neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is transported down the length of the neuron, packaged in synaptic vesicles, and released into the synapse. Crucially, VTA neuronal pathways project to the nucleus accumbens. VTA dopaminergic neurons are under continuous inhibition by the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) system.

In recent years, a convergence of neuropharmacological evidence, clinical research, and electrical stimulation experiments has led many researchers to endorse some version of the "final common pathway" hypothesis of reward.

There are anomalies and complications which the final-common-pathway hypothesis still has to account for. Any story which omits the role and complex interplay of, say, "the love hormone", oxytocin; the "chocolate amphetamine", phenylethylamine; the multiple receptor sub-types of serotonin, noradrenaline and the opioid families; and most crucially of all, the intra-cellular post-synaptic cascade within individual neurons, is going to be simplistic. Yet there is accumulating evidence that recreational euphoriants, clinically useful mood-brighteners, and perhaps all rewarding experiences critically depend on the mesolimbic dopamine pathway.

Even so, there is evidence that our pleasure and desire circuitry have distinguishable neural substrates. Some investigators believe that the role of the mesolimbic dopamine system is not primarily to encode pleasure, but "wanting" i.e. incentive-motivation. On this analysis, endorphins and enkephalins, activating opioid receptors most especially in the ventral pallidum, are what mediate pleasure itself. Mesolimbic dopamine, signaling to the ventral pallidum, mediates desire. Thus "dopamine overdrive", whether natural or drug-induced, promotes a sense of urgency and a motivation to engage with the world, whereas direct activation of opioid receptors in the ventral pallidum induces emotionally self-sufficient bliss.

Certainly, the dopamine neurotransmitter is not itself the brain's magic pleasure-chemical. Only the intra-cellular cascades triggered by neurotransmitter binding to the post-synaptic receptor holds the elusive, tantalizing key to everlasting happiness; and they are not yet fully understood. But it's notable that dopamine D2 receptor-blocking phenothiazines, for example, and other aversive drugs such as kappa opioid agonists, tend to inhibit activity, or increase the threshold of stimulation, in the mesolimbic dopamine system. Conversely, heroin and cocaine, for instance, both mimic the effects of direct electrical stimulation of the reward-pathways.

Comparing the respective behavioural effects of heroin and cocaine is instructive. If rats or monkeys are hooked up to an intravenous source of heroin (or other potent mu opioid agonist such as fentanyl), the animals will happily self-administer the drug indefinitely; but they still find time to sleep and eat. If rats or monkeys can self-administer cocaine indefinitely, however, they will do virtually nothing else. They continue to push a drug-delivery lever for as long as they are physically capable of doing so. Within weeks, if not days, they will lose a substantial portion of their body weight - up to 40%. Within a month, they will be dead.

Humans don't have this problem. So what keeps our mesolimbic dopamine and opioidergic systems so indolent? Why does a "hedonic treadmill" stop us escaping from a genetically-predisposed "set-point" of emotional ill-being? Why can't social engineering, politico-economic reform or psychotherapy - as distinct from germ-line genetic re-writes - make us durably happy?

Evolution provides some plausible answers. A capacity to experience many different flavours of unhappiness - and short-lived joys too - was adaptive in the ancestral environment. Thus at least a partial explanation of endemic human misery lies in selection-pressure and the state of the unreconstructed vertebrate genome. Selfish DNA makes its throwaway survival-machines feel discontented a lot of the time: a restless discontent is typically good for promoting its "inclusive fitness", even if it's bad news for us. Nature simply doesn't care; and God has gone missing, presumed dead.

On the African savannah, naturally happy and un-anxious creatures typically got outbred or eaten or both. Rank theory suggests that the far greater incidence of the internalized correlate of the yielding sub-routine, depression, reflects how low spirits were frequently more adaptive among group-living organisms than manic self-assertion. Group living can be adaptive, but we've paid a very high psychological price.

Whatever the origins of malaise, today a web of negative feedback mechanisms in the CNS conspires to keep well-being - and usually extreme ill-being - from persisting for very long.

Life-enriching emotional superhealth will depend on subverting these mechanisms. The hedonic set-point around which our lives fluctuate can be genetically switched to a far higher plateau of well-being.

At the most immediate level, firing in the neurons of the ventral tegmental area is held in check mainly by gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), the major inhibitory neurotransmitter in the vertebrate central nervous system. Opioids act to diminish the braking action of GABA on the dopaminergic neurons of the VTA. In consequence, VTA neurons release more dopamine in the nucleus accumbens. The reuptake of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens is performed by the dopamine transporter. The transporter is blocked by cocaine. This induces euphoria, augmented by activation of the sigma1 receptors. [Why? We don't know. Science has no deep understanding of why sentience - or insentience for that matter - exists at all.] Amphetamines block the dopamine transporter too; but they also act directly on the dopaminergic neurons and promote neurotransmitter release.

The mesolimbic dopamine pathway passes from the VTA to the nucleus accumbens and ascends to the frontal cortex where it innervates the higher brain. This is because raw limbic emotional highs and lows - in the absence of represented objects, events or properties to be (dis)satisfied about - would be genetically useless. To help self-replicating DNA differentially leave more copies of itself, the textures of subjective niceness and nastiness must infuse our representations of the world, and - by our lights - the world itself. Hedonic tone must be functionally coupled to motor-responses initiated on the basis of the perceived significance of the stimulus to the organism, and of the anticipated consequences - adaptively nice or nasty - of running neural simulations of alternative courses of action that the agent can perform. Hence natural selection has engineered the "encephalisation of emotion". We often get happy, sad or worried "about" the most obscure notions. One form this encephalisation takes is our revulsion at the prospect of turning ourselves into wirehead rats - or soma-pacified dupes of a ruling elite. Both scenarios strike us as too distasteful seriously to contemplate.

In any case, wouldn't we get bored of life-long bliss?

Apparently not. That's what's so revealing about wireheading. Unlike food, drink or sex, the experience of pleasure itself exhibits no tolerance, even though our particular objects of desire certainly do. Thus we can eventually get bored of anything - with a single exception. Stimulation of the pleasure-centres never palls. Fire them in the right way, and boredom is neurochemically impossible. Its substrates are missing. Electrical stimulation of the mesolimbic dopamine system is more intensely rewarding than eating, drinking, and love-making; and it never gets in the slightest a bit tedious. The unlimited raw pleasure of wirehead bliss certainly inspires images of monotony in the electrode-na´ve; but that's a different story altogether.

Yet are wireheading or supersoma really the only ways to ubiquitous ecstasy? Or does posing the very question reflect our stunted conception of the diverse family of paradise-engineering options in prospect?

This isn't an exercise in idle philosophizing. As neuroscience advances, then not just boredom, but pain, terror, disgust, jealousy, anxiety, depression, malaise and any form of unpleasantness are destined to become truly optional. Their shifting gradients played a distinct information-theoretic role in the lives of our ancestors the ancestral environment of adaptation. But their individual textures can shortly be either abolished or genetically shifted to a more exalted plane of well-being instead. Our complicity in their awful persistence, and ultimately our responsibility for sustaining and creating them in the living world, is destined to increase as the new reproductive technologies mature and the revolution in post-genomic medicine unfolds. The hardest obstacles to a cruelty-free world - a world cured of any obligate suffering - will be ideological, not technical. Yet whatever the exact time-scale of its replacement, in evolutionary terms we are on the brink of a Post-Darwinian Transition.



Really? In what sense of "Post-Darwinian"?

Natural selection has previously been "blind". Complications aside, genetic mutations and meiotic shufflings are quasi-random: Nature has no capacity for foresight or contingency-planning. During the primordial Darwinian Era of life on earth, selfishness in the technical genetic sense has closely overlapped with selfishness in the popular sense: they are easily confused, and indeed the first is unavoidable. But in the new reproductive era - where (suites of) alleles will be societally chosen and actively designed in anticipation of their likely behavioural effects - the character of fitness-enhancing traits will be radically different.

For a start, the elimination of such evolutionary relics as the ageing process will make any form of (post-)human reproduction on earth - whether sexual or clonal - a relatively rare and momentous event. It's likely that designer post-human babies will be meticulously pre-planned. The notion that all reproductive decisions will be socially regulated in a post-ageing world is abhorrent to one's libertarian instincts; but if they weren't regulated, then the earth would soon simply exceed its carrying capacity - whether it is 15 billion or 150 billion. If reproduction on earth does cease to be a personal affair and becomes a (democratically accountable?) state-sanctioned choice, then a major shift in the character of typically adaptive behavioural traits will inevitably occur. Taking a crude genes' eye-view, a variant allele coding for, say, enhanced oxytocin expression, or a sub-type of serotonin receptor predisposing to unselfishness in the popular sense, will actually carry a higher payoff in the technical selfish sense - hugely increasing the likelihood that such alleles and their customised successors will be differentially pre-selected in preference to alleles promoting, say, anti-social behaviour.

Told like this, of course, the neurochemical story is a simplistic parody. It barely even hints at the complex biological, socio-economic and political issues at stake. Just who will take the decisions, and how? What will be the role in shaping post-human value systems, not just of exotic new technologies, but of alien forms of emotion whose metabolic pathways and substrates haven't yet been disclosed to us? What kinds, if any, of inorganic organisms or non-DNA-driven states of consciousness will we want to design and implement? What will be the nature of the transitional era - when our genetic mastery of emotional mind-making is still incomplete? How can we be sure that unknown unknowns won't make things go wrong? True, Darwinian life may often be dreadful, but couldn't botched paradise-engineering make it even worse? And even if it couldn't, might not there be some metaphysical sense in which life in a blissful biosphere could still be morally "wrong" - even if it strikes its inhabitants as self-evidently right?

Unfortunately, we will only begin to glimpse the implications of Post-Darwinism when paradise-engineering becomes a mature scientific discipline and mainstream research tradition. Yet as the vertebrate genome is rewritten, the two senses of "selfish" will foreseeably diverge. Today they are easily conflated. A tendency to quasi-psychopathic callousness to other sentient beings did indeed enhance the inclusive fitness of our DNA in the evolutionary past. In the new reproductive era, such traits are potentially maladaptive. They may even disappear.

The possibility that we will become not just exceedingly happier, but nicer, may sound too good to be true. Perhaps we'll just become happier egotists - in every sense. But if a genetic predisposition to niceness becomes systematically fitness-enhancing, then genetic selfishness - in the technical sense of "selfish" - ensures that benevolence will not just triumph; it will also be evolutionarily stable, in the games-theory sense, against "defectors".

Needless to say, subtleties and technical complexities abound here. The very meaning of being "nice" to anyone or anything, for instance, is changed if well-being becomes a generic property of mental life. Either way, once suffering becomes biologically optional, then only sustained and systematic malice towards others could allow us to perpetuate it for ever. And although today we may sometimes be spiteful, there is no evidence that institutionalised malevolence will prevail.

From an ethical perspective, the task of hastening the Post-Darwinian Transition has a desperate moral urgency - brought home by studying just how nasty "natural" pain can be. Those who would resist the demise of unpleasantness may be asked: is it really permissible to compel others to suffer when any form of distress becomes purely optional? Should the metabolic pathways of our evolutionary past be forced on anyone who prefers an odyssey of life-long happiness instead? If so, what means of coercion should be employed, and by whom?

Or is paradise-engineering the only morally serious option? And much more fun.


ę 2000 BLTC Research - All Rights Reserved.

(with permission)

Email them at info@bltc.com

References: Index & Biblio

Stanislaw Lem, the eminent Polish science fiction writer, theorizes, the time may come when, for example, a man may have to be restrained from attempting to rape a sewing machine...

If the future had a slogan, what would it be?

"God promises eternal life. We can deliver it."

Philip K. Dick

The ink of a scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr.


The Quran

Back Home