The way current illicit drugs work are crude. You take them, they short-circuit your pleasure circuits, they create addiction and ruin lives. But it seems likely that science will at some point allow us to create more effective mind-altering drugs. For example, what if there was a drug or a surgery that allowed you to change the structure of your internal reward system. First let’s just consider if you could remap what foods you found delicious.
We find fatty and sugary foods so hard to resist because they are energy-dense. Our bodies evolved in a time when energy was scarce. So our pleasure circuits reflect this. If you were drawn to high-fat food in cave man days, you were more likely to survive the winter. But those evolutionary circumstances no longer hold, as our waistlines show. People literally eat themselves to death because of our genes’ obsolescence (evolution is slow relative to how fast our culture has progressed).
What if you could make carrots taste like twinkees? What if you could remap your tastes so that what was healthy and what was scrumptious were found right in the middle of that Venn diagram. How disruptive would that be? Dessert shops would sell spinach-celery brownies glazed with salmon frosting, and all bars would offer up wheatgrass shots. We’d be healthier and happier, and the obesity crisis would be averted painlessly.
Now consider sex. Imagine how much time is wasted, how much of the world’s intrigues are driven by a process that at heart is: Insert part A into part B — repeat — repeat. Before you get all huffy about how nice sex feels, remember that technology is granting us the ability to remap our desires. What if you got the sensation of super-orgasm from solving a particularly difficult equation — or from knocking the next item off your to-do list?
Don’t forget that sex feels so good only because our genes can control us through our desire for it. People cheat on those they love because it requires so much discipline to conquer the id. Our genes want to control us, to take us from our high-minded aspirations and make sure that we reproduce them. We’re their vehicles — they exert their dominance through our sex drive.
The point is this. At some point in the future, technology may force us to resolve the philosophical question that humans have always struggled with: What does it mean to be human? If being human is not about sex, or about delicious food (which we can see as transparent reflections of our genes’ wishes for us) what is it about? When we have the ability to align our motivations with our greatest aspirations (which I think is of vital importance to the human race, lest we destruct ourselves), then is what remains humanity?
Nature has imposed some weird constraints upon us. We eat ourselves to death, we hurt those we love, we fail to do the things we want, all because of our outdated genes. When the technology comes to help us overcome the need for discipline, it will be an interesting day.