Crack and cheese: do pleasurable things really affect your brain like drugs?
Claims that cheese, sex and Facebook affect your brain in the same way as drugs fundamentally misunderstand how it all works.
Pure, uncut. Worth millions on the street. Photograph: Foodfolio/Alamy
The internet is a weird place. Part of this is due to how things linger rather than disappear, as they tended to do with more “traditional” media. Nowadays, people’s jobs can (rightly or wrongly) be endangered for tweets they wrote years ago. The adage about “today’s news is tomorrow’s fish and chip papers” seems no longer to apply.
This is particularly true when a headline or story from years ago can be found by a group or community on a social network that missed it previously, so they share it widely and it ends up in your feeds long after it’s been “forgotten”. It can be a bit confusing for those of us who grew up solely with televised news. It’s like watching the weekend football roundup when it’s suddenly interrupted by a report that the Berlin Wall has come down.
Case in point: yesterday I saw several examples of a story from 2015 about how scientists have discovered that cheese triggers the same part of the brain as hard drugs. A lot of people seem to be sharing this again (even me, thinking it was new). You’d assume someone well-versed in neuroscience like myself would easily recognise an old story like this. So why didn’t I?
Stories like this are hardly uncommon. You can barely go a month without some study or report describing something supposedly innocuous as having the same effect on the brain, or activating the same brain regions, as drugs of abuse, be it sugar, pornography, religion, sex, Facebook, music, or, apparently, cheese. Give it a week, something else will be cited as stimulating our brains just like the most powerful narcotics. Maybe walking on crunchy leaves or taking your bra off after a long day will be described as the equivalent of inhaling a bin-bag full of cocaine?
It’s really tricky to smuggle this through customs, particularly with the sniffer dogs. Photograph: Steven Mark Needham/Getty Images
There are some worrying implications of this common, persistent approach of comparing anything pleasurable to hard drugs. Firstly, drugs are “bad”. Whether you agree with this, that’s the conclusion we’re constantly presented with. They’re illegal, damaging to health, ruin lives, cause crimes, are a constant blight on society, and so on. Consider the infamous “this is your brain on drugs” campaign which, for all its flaws, was widely successful. The notion that “drugs damage your brain” was widespread and enduring. In many ways, it’s true.
It wouldn’t take any great leaps of logic, then, to argue that anything that has the same effects as drugs of abuse is also bad. So, if you’re worried about what too much sugar/cheese/porn/Facebook is doing to you or those you care about, evidence suggesting they’re similar/tantamount to drug use is going to really vindicate your concerns, and possibly justify “clamping down” on such things.
On the other hand, maybe these accusations of scaremongering are themselves just scaremongering? Maybe those who raise concerns about the nature of how something affects us are doing so for 100% benign and well-intended reasons? However, even if that is the case, there’s no getting around the fact that such “just like drugs” comparisons display a fundamental misunderstanding of how the brain works, and this isn’t helpful in the long run.
Anything that causes us to experience pleasure, in any context, invariably involves activity in the brain’s mesolimbic reward pathway. It’s a deeply embedded area of the brain, made up of many links between the nucleus accumbens and the ventral tegmental area. It’s very complex, but basically these regions are responsible for reviewing what we’re experiencing and deciding whether it warrants the sensation of pleasure, and supplying this pleasure, or “reward”, if the answer is yes. The neurological processes that govern this area use dopamine, hence dopamine’s frequent labelling as the “pleasure chemical” or similar.
However, so fundamental is the reward pathway and so many and varied are the things we can experience that there are countless links and connections to it, which can be affected by sooooo many things. Imagine if the digital records of all the world’s money were stored on one server (ignore how incredibly unwise such an arrangement would be and just go with it). Think of how many things would be connected to this server, and how many ways it would be activated, and how often. The brain’s reward system is a bit like that, but more complicated.
The opioid system, for instance, which is (usually) governed by endorphins and related chemicals, has potent effects on the activity in the reward pathway. Alcohol apparently induces its pleasing effects by interactions with the endorphin-dependant processes. The “addictive” effects of cheese are apparently due to it containing large amounts of the protein casein, present in milk but at much higher levels in cheese because of how it’s made. Casein activates the opioid system, inducing pleasure. It makes evolutionary sense when you think about it: the whole point of the reward system is basically to encourage positive, helpful behaviours and deter unhelpful ones. And when we’re newborns, we survive solely on a diet of milk. If you didn’t like drinking milk, that’d be bad, but if milk gets you “high” in some way, that’s less likely to happen.
Milk is essentially creamy heroin. Milkmen are worse than dealers. Cows are basically kingpins of their own internal-drug cartels. Photograph: Paul Slater/Apex
The problem is, though, why do these fundamental, crucial, ancient neurological processes get labelled as the bits that drugs work on, as if that’s what they’re for? Drugs are, in many ways, the interlopers here, not the foodstuffs, sensory experiences or behaviours that activate the reward system via the many existing processes that have evolved to produce just such a reaction. By contrast, drugs of abuse stimulate the reward pathways directly, or “artificially”; they’re chemicals we introduce to our systems to do just that, so they throw off the checks and balances we’ve evolved over the aeons and cause unpleasant results such as powerful addictions. If someone said withdrawing money from your account is just like robbing a bank, you’d probably take issue with this, but in neurological terms the “just like using drugs” claims aren’t too far off this logic.
Of course, this too is an oversimplification. The stimuli, foods and behaviours we’re able to indulge in these days are not like anything that’s come before due to our technical advancement, so it’s foolish to say they’re “safe” by default. As ever, the truth is far more complex and nuanced.
This doesn’t change the fact that labelling the reward-inducing parts of the brain as the “drug” bits is both unfair, unhelpful and, in many ways, meaningless. You can write a thank you card and a ransom note with the same pen, but that doesn’t mean your card will make the recipient call the police. The hand you use to wield an axe can also be used to stroke a baby’s face; the baby will remain uninjured.
And hey, Valentine’s Day is coming up, but have you noticed how the word “love” is 50% made up of the vowels “o” and “e”? These are clearly the most romantic vowels, so be sure to use those the most when chatting someone up. Technically, this would make the most effective pick-up line: “HEllO Old crOnE, OnE wOuld lOvE tO dO sEx On yOu, yEs?”
Of course, specific letters are used in many different ways and contexts, to argue that some are more romantic because of one example of their use is a ridiculous conclusion. But in many cases, so is arguing that because something uses the same brain regions that drugs work on, that they are just like drugs themselves.
And I don’t even like cheese that much.
Dean Burnett takes an in-depth look at how things make us feel pleasure in his upcoming book The Happy Brain, released 3 May. His debut book The Idiot Brain is available now, in the UK, US and elsewhere.