The Compass of Pleasure
by David J. Linden. Viking Press, 2011
The dog masturbating, the bird scouring for berries, the porcupine hunting for hallucinogenic plants, the human slamming quarter after quarter into a slot machine. Sure enough, animals are hardwired to seek pleasure. But when taken too far, this innate inclination can become an addiction.
In his book The Compass of Pleasure, David J. Linden draws on recent scientific findings to explain how pleasure manifests in the brain. Linden, a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University, provides a primer on the brain’s pleasure circuit, walking the reader through examples of how highly addictive behaviors, such as gambling and doing drugs, as well as more mundane activities, such as exercising and playing video games, exploit reward pathways in the brain. In a strange twist of fate, the exact same brain circuits that allow us to enjoy life also fuel bad habits.
But addicts derive little pleasure from their vices. For them, Linden explains, it is the hunt for these experiences that becomes more pleasurable than the high itself. The intensity of the craving remodels those pleasure circuits, causing desire to outpace pleasure. The same experiences that most people seek out for happiness, addicts need to feel normal.
Overall, the book serves as a status check on the neuroscience of pleasure. Although Linden scatters anecdotes and humorous personal experiences throughout his book, at times it reads more like a textbook, delivering accurate yet overly detailed descriptions of the brain’s anatomy and biochemistry. His thoroughness has its perks, however—Linden does not shy away from pointing out the flaws or limitations in the research he presents.
Although recent boosts in techniques and technology have allowed scientists to look deeply into the brain for answers, Linden explains that the brain is endlessly complex and that we still have substantial ground to cover to fully understand pleasure and addiction. Our behavior will never be explained by one brain circuit—or one book, for that matter. But Linden has provided the first stalwart steps into this new frontier.