After plumbing the depths of the human brain in The Accidental Mind, neuroscientist David Linden hits the pleasure button in his latest, The Compass of Pleasure. Among the good doctor’s most fascinating lessons is that the same “pleasure circuit” that leads to dysfunction among alcoholics, drug fiends and sex addicts can be activated with equally powerful results by more virtuous activities. Linden recently spoke to us about addiction, pleasure and the biochemistry of feeling good.
Your first book, The Accidental Mind, explored the long, strange evolution of the human mind. To what end does The Compass of Pleasure devote itself?
The goal of The Compass of Pleasure is to explore how both vice and virtue activate an anatomically defined pleasure circuit in the brain and to touch on both the positive aspects of pleasure—and of course the dark side of pleasure, which is addiction.
Pleasure started out as an evolutionary mechanism to ensure the propagation of the species. You want things like eating, drinking and having sex to be pleasurable, because they ensure we survive. When you take that pleasure circuit and convolve it with mechanisms for associative learning, what you get is the ability for entirely random constructions to be pleasurable—mere ideas, ideologies, narratives, can be pleasurable, things that don’t have any relationship to pleasure at all.
How do you choose the stories that will best illustrate your point?
People aren’t always willing to come along for the ride, so you have to engage them in order to draw people in to make them spend the time. The best way to make them spend the mental effort to learn about brain science is to engage them through compelling stories.
What were the essential questions you wanted to address about these aspects of human nature?
The book starts by asking how we came to this idea that there’s a reward/pleasure circuit in the brain. Part of the reason we understand this idea is because drugs are able to hijack that circuit. If you can take a plant, smoke it and artificially hijack the circuit, it shows us some of the anatomy and the biochemistry of how the circuit is constructed.
Then we move to things that are less concrete, like gambling. We’re not hardwired to gamble, but money stands for something tangible in the world. That’s one step removed.
Then you move to notions like information. We get pleasure out of information for information’s sake. That’s really the miracle among the higher mammals—utterly arbitrary things can activate the pleasure circuit. That’s not something a lizard can do. It requires a bigger, more complicated brain.
What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about pleasure?
One has to do with this sticky line between pleasure and happiness. I find happiness to be a very difficult concept. Pleasure is transient. It’s something you associate with a particular action, be it eating or having sex or meditating or going for a run. The corporate world tries to sell us this idea that short-term pleasures ultimately add up to long-term happiness.
The other thing that people get wrong is the concept of addiction. Most people believe that alcoholics get more pleasure out of alcohol. It’s just the opposite. It turns out that addicts want the reward more, but they like it less. Eventually, all the pleasure gets sucked out of the experience. A heroin addict isn’t thinking about getting high. They need that fix just to feel normal.
What do you like about writing for a layman audience?
For a working scientist, it’s a different challenge. But it’s also imperative. We scientists are public employees. Taxpayers fund the National Institutes of Health. I want to make the case that this work is interesting and relevant so when people are making political decisions whether to fund science and biomedical research, they’ll be enthusiastic about it. I’m hoping that in time more brain researchers will write for a general audience, and the public will be well-served by the effort.
Your new book ends with an essay on the future of pleasure. Realistically, what do you think will be the biggest issues facing addiction specialists or pleasure brokers in the next 20 years?
There will certainly be genetic tests that will indicate predisposition for addiction. There will be drugs that make it easier for people to break addiction. I think there will be a greater understanding of how certain nondrug therapeutic practices help those suffering with addiction.
Eventually we will have technology that will allow us to activate very few neurons anywhere in the brain. That’s what will crack open virtual reality in ways that will be unexpected and possibly hugely disruptive. But that’s not imminent.
What do you expect readers to get out of their experience with The Compass of Pleasure?
There two things I want people to remember. First, both socially sanctioned virtues and vices can activate the pleasure circuit. The same pleasure circuit that’s activated by drugs and sex and food is the circuit that is activated by volunteering, charity, learning, meditation and prayer. The second idea is that understanding the biology of addiction strongly compels us to treat addictions with compassion.