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The Compass of Pleasure

How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning and Gambling Feel So Good

By David J. Linden
12-minute read
Audio available
The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning and Gambling Feel So Good by David J. Linden

The Compass of Pleasure (2011) explains what seemingly different experiences, from taking heroin to giving to charity, from overeating to orgasm, have in common: their impact on our brain’s pleasure circuitry. These blinks reveal the way pleasurable experiences rewire our brains over time and explain the true nature of addiction.

  • Anyone curious about the influence of neurology on our daily lives
  • Those interested in the mechanisms of addiction and how to undo them
  • People seeking healthier sources of pleasure

David J. Linden is a professor of neuroscience at John Hopkins University and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Neurophysiology. A popularizer of brain science, he is also the author of The Accidental Mind: How Brain Evolution Has Given Us Love, Memory, Dreams and God.

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The Compass of Pleasure

How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning and Gambling Feel So Good

By David J. Linden
  • Read in 12 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 7 key ideas
The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning and Gambling Feel So Good by David J. Linden
Synopsis

The Compass of Pleasure (2011) explains what seemingly different experiences, from taking heroin to giving to charity, from overeating to orgasm, have in common: their impact on our brain’s pleasure circuitry. These blinks reveal the way pleasurable experiences rewire our brains over time and explain the true nature of addiction.

Key idea 1 of 7

Pleasurable experiences activate the brain’s medial forebrain pleasure circuit.

What’s your preferred source of pleasure? Whether it’s legal, illegal, something you can talk about at the dinner table or something taboo, pleasurable activities all share one thing in common. They activate the pleasure circuit in the medial forebrain. So although you might view an orgasm, eating a slice of chocolate cake or injecting heroin as rather different events, the science behind them is essentially the same.

The human brain contains several interconnected structures that allow us to feel pleasure. One of these structures is the ventral tegmental area (VTA). When we experience something pleasurable, the neurons in the VTA release dopamine to the amygdala. This is the part of the brain which controls our emotions.

Dopamine is also sent to the dorsal striatum, a structure that is responsible for learning habits. So when you eat a delicious slice of chocolate cake you’ll both enjoy it and want to eat it again – and again. Our attempts to repeatedly experience certain kinds of pleasure lead to habits and addictions.

In this way, our medial forebrain pleasure circuit is a strong influence on our behavior. Scientists have examined this relationship through studies where the pleasure circuit is deliberately stimulated.

One of these studies was highly controversial, and its findings have been contested to this day. It took place in the 1970s, at Tulane University, by Dr. Robert Galbraith Heath. He wanted to discover if a homosexual man could derive pleasure from heterosexual intercourse by electrically stimulating his pleasure circuit.

Heath implanted electrodes into the subject’s brain and claimed that later in the study, the subject had changed so much that he was able to ejaculate during intercourse with a woman in the lab. Heath also said that the subject even had a sexual relationship with a married woman after the experiment concluded.

Despite its limited scope, this study shows that direct electrical stimulation on the brain’s pleasure circuitry can be highly influential to short-term behavior.

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