These days, we know quite a lot about the correlation between levels of the various neurotransmitters and emotional state. We still know next to nothing, though, as far as I can tell, about the mechanisms which regulate neurotransmitter concentrations in the body. Pharmaceutical treatment of mood disorders merely takes the deficits as a given. Whilst, however, there may conceivably be instances in which the underproduction is biologically determined, it is perfectly clear that in most cases depressed neurotransmitter levels are simply a consequence of underlying neurosis. Since neurosis has a variety of effects on the body, simply remedying a single expression of it does nothing to address pathologies which are not vectored by means of the neurotransmitter in question, and may have unintended consequences.
Individual neurotransmitters tend to have a variety of surprisingly unrelated functions. Nowhere, however, is the adaptive role of a neurotransmitter more mysterious than in the case of endorphins. Endorphins were first discovered as the body’s own “endogenous morphine”, as discussed in Candace Pert’s book Molecules of Emotion which I reviewed on this blog. Thus endorphins are produced in response to pain and they act as analgesics. But endorphins are also produced in response to love and orgasm. What on earth is the link?
I don’t pretend to know the answer, but if endorphins procure us a state of bliss then it is tempting to wonder if, although we tend to suppress pain, being more aware of it would not in fact bring us more joy. It is often said that there is no pleasure without pain, but might this be quite literally true at the biochemical level? Indeed, it is awareness of pain, not pain itself, that triggers endorphin production. This is clearly the case because the body has ways of suppressing psychic pain which do not rely on endorphins. Additionally, endorphins are produced in response to acute pain and endeavor to allow the body to continue to operate under temporarily stressed circumstances; the body’s own painkillers become less effective once the immediate crisis is past, when the experience of pain serves the role of prompting appropriate remedial action in response. By contrast, falling in love raises endorphin levels over a prolonged period.
How then can we experience the bliss of raised endorphin levels if we are not in pain, and have no pain to bring into consciousness? Well, as I argued in an earlier post, vicarious experience and direct experience are much harder to distinguish than we realize. The mere fact, therefore, that pain is a constant of the human condition gives us access to it, an access we can embrace or, on the contrary, shy away from. When we are fully engaged with the collective human experience, and not only our personal experience, pain as well as pleasure abound. This is the natural state of things, and our responsiveness to it is natural also. But usually we are closed to the pain of others because we are closed to our own pain, and we are closed to that pain because we irrationally fear its long-lost power to overwhelm the ego.