Food and the Promise of Pleasure: Beliefs and the Brain

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The work of building a life worth living demands we learn how to satisfy our hunger. Satisfying our appetite for a good life is directly linked to learning how we satisfy our body’s need for nourishing foods.  Although several hormones and the hypothalamus monitor the hunger to satiation ratio of our body, and thereby regulate our food consumption[i], they also activate our brain’s hedonic pleasure center.[ii]  Thus, whether it is our desire to live a good life or the sensation we feel when we need to eat, when it comes to satisfying our hunger all roads lead to the pleasure centers of our brain. 

Although satiation (feelings of fullness, wholeness and aliveness), triggers hedonic sensations of pleasure, our brain does not discriminate between the pleasures of a satisfying meal, a runner’s high, the high of drug addiction or compulsive gambling.  Consequently, we can trick our brain into producing hedonic feelings even if it threatens the health of our body and inevitably destroys our life. Understanding how our brain and body interact to control and satisfy our hunger for feeling whole and alive provides insights into problems like addiction and our obesity epidemic.[iii] 

Tricking our brain begins with the belief in the promise of pleasure.  Every placebo effect, whether in medicine, sports, or marketing, is born from this belief.[iv]  In marketing, the promise of pleasure is explicit in every advertisement for calorically dense, ultra-palatable sweet, salty, fatty foods; dietary supplements, diets, and lipolytic surgeries.  It cultivates expectations of pleasure[v], conditioning us to salivate at the sight of the marketer’s deceptively tantalizing commercials.[vi]  The power of this belief can alter our taste[vii], ability to think rationally[viii], and make us indifferent about how we make ourselves feel whole, healthy and happy.  In part 2, we will look at how marketers seek to instill this belief early in life by targeting children. 



[i] Melanie D. Klok, S. Jakobsdottir and M. L. Dren. 2007.  Appetite regulatory peptides: The role of leptin and ghrelin in the regulation of food intake and body weight in humans: a review. Obesity Reviews 8, 21–34.  doi: 10.1111/j.1467-789X.2006.00270.x. 

[ii] Rexford S. Ahima, and Daniel A. Antwi.  2008. Brain regulation of appetite and satiety. Endocrinol Metab Clin North Am. 37(4): 811–823. doi:10.1016/j.ecl.2008.08.005

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] W. Grant Thompson, 2005. The Placebo Effect and Health: Combining Science and Compassionate Care.  Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY.

[v] Scott M. Schafer, L. Colloca and T.D. Wager. Conditioned placebo analgesia persists when subjects know they are receiving a placebo. The Journal of Pain, 2015:16(5), pp.412-420.  Applying the line of thinking Schafer et al. present stating that expectations of a medical or any other placebo effect is not dependent upon knowing the properties of the placebo (e.g., the chemical analgesic properties of a medical treatment) but rather “a more general belief that a placebo treatment can relieve symptoms” (p. 413) and deliver on the promise of pleasure.



[vi] Andrew S. Ehrenberg, Repetitive advertising and the consumer. Journal of Advertising Research, 2000:40(6), pp.39-48.  See also: Deborah J. Macinnis and B.J. Jaworski. Information processing from advertisements: Toward an integrative framework. The Journal of Marketing, 1989, pp.1-23.  The authors describe how the “brand” becomes a conditioned stimulus via repeated associations between the positive moods or affect conveyed by the advertisement for the brand.  As a result of repeatedly being exposed to these positive associations, the meaningless brand is transformed into a meaningful symbolic stimulus for experiencing the positive affect.

[vii] Samuel M. McClure, J. Li, D. Tomlin, K.S. Cypert, L.M. Montague and P.R. Montague. Neural correlates of behavioral preference for culturally familiar drinks. Neuron, 2004:44(2), pp. 379-387.  Using neural imaging to examine brain activity among Coke and Pepsi drinkers these authors showed that brand knowledge (i.e., seeing a can of coke) significantly increased preference for identifying the unlabeled soda they were drinking as “coke” even if it was Pepsi. 

[viii] Hilke Plassmann, J. O’Doherty, B. Shiv and A. Rangel. Marketing actions can modulate neural representations of experienced pleasantness. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2008:105(3), pp.1050-1054.  Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) these authors show that as the perceived price of a wine increased, so too did the expectations of experiencing a favorable taste, as manifested by increased activity in brain’s pleasure center for taste.  Baba Shiv, Z. Carmon and D. Ariely. Placebo effects of marketing actions: Consumers may get what they pay for. Journal of Marketing Research, 2005:42(4), pp.383-393. Interestingly, these researchers show consumers who pay and consume an energy drink at a discounted price that was purported to increase mental acuity, negatively affected their performance trying to solve puzzle problems compared to those who purchased and consumed the exact same product but paid the regular higher price for it. The “undesirable placebo effect” (p. 387) seems to corresponds to what has been referred to in the medical realm as a “nocebo” effect (Thompson, W.G., 2005, pp. 71-82). 

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