We love the chase more than the object, and that’s good for us.
In his book “The Other Side of Desire” (Ecco, 2010), Daniel Bergner investigates the complex social and neurological phenomena fueling human desire. Is it a permanent fixture in our psychological construction or is it malleable? How does desire arise? What quenches it? He goes on:
“What is the relationship between the physical and the transcendent, between the surfaces of the body and the wisdom to melt the bonds of self, between the forces of lust and our striving for love?”
Desire is a broad category extending far beyond a physical craving. That intense yearning for transformation and, ultimately, fulfillment exists in all of us. As it turns out, it can be both an essential catalyst and a crippling disappointment.
The neuroscience of desire
In the 1950s, researchers discovered a neurobiological link between desire and pleasure in the dopamine circuits of rats. This led to a series of experiments over the next few decades on mammals and humans to find the mechanisms driving us toward pleasurable experiences. Here, too, dopamine plays a central role.
Interestingly, researchers discovered that the signal for wanting—desire—was more powerful than the attainment of the object. Pleasure, it turns out, is most likely an adaptation that keeps procreation possible. As with many evolutionary adaptations, modern humans exploited the pleasure circuit while in search of perpetual happiness.
This leads to chronic dissatisfaction: We’re chasing impossible goals, never content with what we attain. From a biological perspective, this striving is beneficial, but it subsequently drains us emotionally and taxes our cognitive resources. This leads to a wide variety of addictions—chemical, physical and otherwise.
Desire that’s gratifying
How to cure an addictive personality? Don Draper found swimming, a cardiovascular exercise, helped him deal with rampant alcoholism. The writers of “Mad Men” were onto something.
For one, getting your heart rate up results in neurogenesis, the birth of new neurons, in your brain’s hippocampus, where memories are stored and recalled. Activities like running also affect your brain’s frontal lobes, resulting in increased blood flow that promotes clear thinking, focus, time management and goal setting.
Perhaps most important, cardio helps with emotional regulation. Whereas pleasure seekers fall flat—for the reasons explained above—in their pursuits of the flesh and pharmacological substances, human neurobiology is sated when placing one foot in front of the other at a fast rate. The goal really is the journey itself and not the destination.
For that reason, this month’s playlist is an upbeat affair filled with vocal dance tracks. We ease in with a deep house track by Beat Pharmacy, then quickly get going with desire-fueled tracks by Bebel Gilberto, Dusky, Lissat & Voltaxx, Oliver Heldens, Franky Rizardo, Robbie Rivera, Dennis Ferrer, Vernon & DaCosta and a classic by Robin S.
The mix winds down with a wonderful rework of Portishead’s “Glory Box” by The Avener, which features John Martyn on vocals and closes on a chill note with one of my favorite Fat Freddy’s Drop tracks “Big BW.”
While most songs in this mix speak lyrically of romantic desire, each song has a feeling of something greater, a transcendent quality we associate with extending beyond the boundaries of the self. Music has its own dimension of longing. If you’re like me, it’s an addiction you have no problem admitting.
Photo credit: Thinkstock, iStock, BrianAJackson.