Coming soon: The sex chip

Morten L. Kringelbach, a researcher at Oxford who sometimes collaborates with Aziz and wrote the book The Pleasure Center (Oxford University Press, 2008), cautions that hedonic experience may consist of an impulse corresponding to “wanting” and another that represents “liking.” To succeed as a therapy, a sex chip would have to address the challenge of switching on neural circuits that activate both impulses. In a 2008 paper in Psycho­phar­ma­col­ogy with University of Michigan at Ann Arbor psychologist Kent Berridge, Kringelbach illustrated the distinction between the two by citing an infamous case from the 1960s, in which psychiatrist Robert Heath placed “pleasure electrodes” in the brain of a gay man code-named B-19, in part, as an attempt to “cure” his homosexuality.

The patient pressed a button compulsively to turn on an electrode that induced a desire for sex, but whether he actually enjoyed the sensation was unclear. The stimulation alone did not induce orgasm, and B-19 never expressed any real contentment while hitting the button. Kringelbach warns against similar misuses of contemporary deep-brain stimulation. “It’s important that we not get carried away by this technology,” he says.