My wife and I have dramatically different tastes when it comes to certain books, movies, and television shows. For instance, I love The Simpsons and South Park, whereas she’s a fan of terrible shows that nobody in their right mind would ever watch Dawson’s Creek and One Tree Hill. We share enough common ground that it isn’t really a problem, though our Netflix suggestions are never very useful. In any case, I think we’re a pretty clear example that different people find different things to be enjoyable.
Despite the fact that there are clear differences in personal tastes for enjoyable things, our brains are pretty consistent in the regions and chemicals that are involved in the experience of pleasure. For example, when we listen to music that we like, the brain areas that release dopamine are especially active, regardless of whether we’re listening to jazz or jam bands. Of course, these areas aren’t just sensitive to our preferences for music: they’re also activated when we’re eating our favorite foods (like chocolate), or engaging in pleasurable activities (like sex or drugs). Collectively, the brain areas that traffic in dopamine are known as the mesolimbic dopaminergic system, but they’re often referred to as the reward or pleasure pathway.
It turns out that our pleasure pathways actually turn on before we start experiencing the real effects of a pleasurable or rewarding substance, like beer in this case. A recent study in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology (that might be the longest word I’ve ever typed) used positron emission tomography (PET) to scan the brains of men while they periodically tasted beer or Gatorade. And by taste, I mean that they got a little spritz of the beverage on their tongue - there was no drinking going on here, so there was no chance that the participants would feel any real effects of alcohol. The PET scans showed that the tastes of beer turned on the pleasure pathways leading to the release of dopamine, at least compared to the tastes of Gatorade. The study also found that participants who had a close relative with alcoholism released more dopamine than the other participants after tasting the beer. Given that a family history of alcoholism doubles a person’s risk of developing alcoholism themselves, that isn’t too surprising, but it is awfully scary.
Essentially, this shows that our pleasure pathways aren’t just sensitive to pleasurable things, but to the contexts that surround those pleasurable things as well. If we’re experiencing the pleasure of alcohol in a beer, we’re also simultaneously experiencing the non-alcohol context of the beer - its taste and smell, the look of the label, the feel of the bottle. Eventually, the pleasure pathway gets conditioned into turning on just by the context. This study showed that at a small level, but you can also think about it at a broader level: if you have success meeting people at a particular bar, eventually you’ll get excited just walking into the bar, even before you’ve met anyone.
None of this explains why my wife and I have such different feelings about offensively terrible teenage melodramas, but it does at least suggest that we’re both entitled to our own personal taste. It also says that there might be a family component to how we experience pleasure and reward, so I can only hope that our kids take after their father, or can’t reach the remote.