In his exiled India home, the Dalai Lama of Tibet this month will pick University of Michigan researcher Kent Berridge’s brain about cravings.
Berridge, the James Olds Collegiate Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, says he’s honored to discuss his findings on how the brain’s large “wanting” systems cause intense craving.
A dozen neuroscientists, psychiatrists, psychologists, addiction clinicians, philosophers and theologians have been invited by the Dalai Lama for a week-long dialogue Oct. 28-Nov. 1 about craving, desire and addiction. Each person will give a half-day presentation; Berridge is scheduled for Oct. 29.
“I’m a little nervous but also excited,” Berridge said. “It’s a unique mix of people and approaches, and the chance of a lifetime to meet the Dalai Lama and have a long conversation with him. This will be an entirely different sort of discussion on the topic of craving, which has been a major interest during my nearly 30 years at Michigan.”
Craving or “wanting” mechanisms evolved to work with pleasure mechanisms of “liking” and mechanisms of cognition. But once these brain mechanisms exist, they can come apart in ways that sometimes make cravings work against our best interests, Berridge says.
“The extreme example is addiction, where cravings can be so intense as to cause strong ‘wanting’ even for things that are not pleasant. The cravings can return irrationally, even when not in distress, and when one knows that pursuing the thing will make our lives worse,” he said. “Our goal is to understand how such cravings happen.”
Cravings operate by particular rules, Berridge says. For instance, addictive cues can elicit relapse and binges, but the intensity of urge and danger of relapse will be much higher if encountered when the brain’s ‘wanting’ systems are excited, as in moments of stress or emotional excitement, or when a former addict has tried to take ‘just one hit’ again.
Understanding the brain mechanisms helps to explain why psychological craving features can sometimes become so problematic and destructive, Berridge says, and perhaps point to better ways to control cravings.
“I’ll describe these points to the Dalai Lama because he is interested in cravings and in helping people become freer from them,” he said. “I’ll ask for his take on our findings, in hopes that he might shed a different kind of light on the nature of craving that could be interesting or even useful to Western science in return.”
The Dalai Lama will view a video of an experiment from the U-M lab showing intense addictive-type sugar craving in a rat. U-M senior postdoctoral fellow Mike Robinson used laser stimulation in an experiment to painlessly activate the rat’s “wanting” brain system. Other doctoral students who have assisted in the research are Shannon Cole, Shelley Cole and Daniel Castro.
Berridge is the third U-M researcher invited to this program. The others were Jacquelynne Eccles, the Wilbert McKeachie and Paul Pintrich Distinguished University Professor of Psychology and Education, and David Meyer, the Clyde Coombs and Keith Smith Distinguished University Professor of Mathematical and Cognitive Psychology.