Author Gregory Berns has a string of letters after his name, serves as an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University, and has been covered by an impressive array of magazines and television networks. In spite of this, he manages to deliver a riveting and highly readable account of his exploration to discover the answer to a single question: what do humans want?
Berns tells us flat out in his preface that “the essence of a satisfying experience exists within your brain.” In an effort to identify the source of desires, the author pinpoints a region of the brain called the striatum as a valid candidate. In a brief and easily understandable explanation, he describes the connection between dopamine, a chemical related to pleasurable sensations, and the striatum. “Without dopamine,” he says, “…your sense of purpose…will be thoroughly derailed.”
Citing research that contradicts the validity of Freud’s “pleasure principle,” Berns suggests instead that it is not the attainment of a goal that gives us pleasure, but rather the anticipation of and the journey to the goal. According to Berns, what each of us truly wants is novelty.
“The brain’s need for intellectual novelty manifests as curiosity,” he tells us. It appears that our brains not only crave but actually thrive on novelty. It’s why we continue to buy lottery tickets even though the odds of wining are infinitesimal; it’s why we try new restaurants even though we have no complaints about the food at the corner diner; it’s why we keep watching Lost.
We want to know what happens next. We gamble that each new toy, event, encounter, or episode will be better than what we currently have.
It does seem to be true that “hope springs eternal,” possibly because hope provides a greater thrill than actually achieving the goal. People who win the big money, for instance, are no happier than their cash-strapped neighbors. In fact, Berns concludes that we derive more pleasure from the anticipation of change than we do from the actual differences made.
In pursuing the question of why this is so, Berns relates his experiences in Cuba. Based on the limited freedom and income opportunities there, one might expect the Cuban people to rank low on the life satisfaction scale, yet Berns was surprised to find that the people seemed happy and filled with a vibrant sense of life. From this observation, he leads us through attempts by science to measure happiness. Returning to the striatum, he describes experiments in which test subjects’ brains registered more striatal activity when subjects had to work to receive money than when money was received without effort.
Combining details of various scientific experiments with personal exploration, Satisfaction takes the reader along as Berns subjects himself to an fMRI scan, tries his hand at a national crossword competition, scales a volcano in Iceland, and ultimately confronts his own need for novelty. Much of this book reads like a novel, with quirky, well-defined characters, smoky ambience, and weighty symbolism, and Berns himself appears as the bemused anti-hero. The individual experiments and attendant settings are captivating on their own; the fascinating nature of the topic and its revelations compelling. Overall, Satisfaction provides just that.