Physiological Role of Pleasure

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Science  17 Sep 1971:
Vol. 173, Issue 4002, pp. 1103-1107
DOI: 10.1126/science.173.4002.1103


A given stimulus can induce a pleasant or unpleasant sensation depending on the subject's internal state. The word alliesthesia is proposed to describe this phenomenon. It is, in itself, an adequate motivation for behavior such as food intake or thermoregulation. Therefore, negative regulatory feedback systems, based upon oropharingeal or cutaneous thermal signals are peripheral only in appearance, since the motivational component of the sensation is of internal origin. The internal signals seem to be complex and related to the set points of some regulated variables of the "milieu interieur," like set internal temperature in the case of thermal sensation (15). Alliesthesia can therefore explain the adaptation of these behaviors to their goals. Only three sensations have been studied— thermal, gustatory, and olfactory, but it is probable that alliesthesia also exists in such simple ways as in bringing a signal, usually ignored, to the subject's attention. For example, gastric contractions, not normally perceived, are felt in the state of hunger (16). Since alliesthesia relies on an internal input, it is possible that alliesthesia exists only with sensations related to some constants of the "milieu interieur" and therefore would not exist in visual or auditory sensations. As a matter of fact, luminous or auditory stimuli can be pleasing or displeasing in themselves, but there seems to be little variation of pleasure in these sensations, that is, no alliesthesia. There may be some esthetic value linked to these stimuli but it is a striking coincidence that they are in themselves rather neutral and that it is difficult to imagine a constant of the "milieu interieur" which could be possibly modified by a visual or an auditive stimulus—such as light of a certain wavelength or sound of a given frequency.

In the light of this theory, it is possible to reconsider the nature of the whole conscious experience. The existence of alliesthesia implies the presence of internal signals modifying the concious sensations aroused from peripheral receptors. It is therefore necessary to question the existence of sensations aroused by direct stimulation of central receptors, such as hypothalamic temperature detectors, osmoreceptors, and others. Does their excitation arouse sensations of their own, or does the sensation have to pass through peripheral senses? Only human experimentation could answer this question. In the same way, it is possible that selfstimulation of the brain is pleasant, not by giving a sensation in itself, but because the electrical stimulus (17), renders peripheral stimuli pleasant.

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