The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good [NOOK Book]

Overview

A leading brain scientist's look at the neurobiology of pleasure-and how pleasures can become addictions.

Whether eating, taking drugs, engaging in sex, or doing good deeds, the pursuit of pleasure is a central drive of the human animal. In The Compass of Pleasure Johns Hopkins neuroscientist David J. Linden explains how pleasure affects us at the most fundamental level: in...
See more details below
The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good

Available on NOOK devices and apps  
  • NOOK Devices
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 NOOK 7.0
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 NOOK 10.1
  • NOOK HD Tablet
  • NOOK HD+ Tablet
  • NOOK eReaders
  • NOOK Color
  • NOOK Tablet
  • Tablet/Phone
  • NOOK for Windows 8 Tablet
  • NOOK for iOS
  • NOOK for Android
  • NOOK Kids for iPad
  • PC/Mac
  • NOOK for Windows 8
  • NOOK for PC
  • NOOK for Mac
  • NOOK for Web

Want a NOOK? Explore Now

NOOK Book (eBook)
$12.99
BN.com price

Overview

A leading brain scientist's look at the neurobiology of pleasure-and how pleasures can become addictions.

Whether eating, taking drugs, engaging in sex, or doing good deeds, the pursuit of pleasure is a central drive of the human animal. In The Compass of Pleasure Johns Hopkins neuroscientist David J. Linden explains how pleasure affects us at the most fundamental level: in our brain.

As he did in his award-winning book, The Accidental Mind, Linden combines cutting-edge science with entertaining anecdotes to illuminate the source of the behaviors that can lead us to ecstasy but that can easily become compulsive. Why are drugs like nicotine and heroin addictive while LSD is not? Why has the search for safe appetite suppressants been such a disappointment? The Compass of Pleasure concludes with a provocative consideration of pleasure in the future, when it may be possible to activate our pleasure circuits at will and in entirely novel patterns.
Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

Christopher Chabris
In his book The Compass of Pleasure, the Johns Hopkins neurobiologist David J. Linden explicates the workings of these [brain] regions, known collectively as the reward system, elegantly drawing on sources ranging from personal experience to studies of brain activity to experiments with molecules and genes. Linden builds a powerful case that every kind of substance, activity or stimulus that motivates human choice does so because it acts on this particular network, whose neurons use the chemical dopamine to communicate with one another.
—The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly
By merging an evolutionary perspective with cutting-edge research in neuroscience, Linden, a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, addresses provocative questions about the relationship between pleasure and addiction while exploring many of the broader implications of the nexus of the two."Understanding the biological basis of pleasure leads us to fundamentally rethink the moral and legal aspects of addiction to drugs, food, sex, and gambling and the industries that manipulate these pleasures." Linden (The Accidental Mind) is admirable at explaining complex scientific concepts for the nonspecialist. He focuses most of his attention on the role played by the small portion of our gray matter known as the medial forebrain pleasure circuit and demonstrates how both behavior and chemistry can activate its neurons. He also discusses the somewhat counterintuitive conclusion that addiction is often associated with decreased pleasure. Linden's conversational style, his abundant use of anecdotes, and his successful coupling of wit with insight makes the book a joy to read. Even the footnotes are sprinkled with hidden gems. (Apr.)
The Barnes & Noble Review

Human nature, at war for itself.

For centuries, that was the fundamental view of our interior life: a perpetual struggle between the brain—the capital of rationality—and the heart, the sloppy seat of passion.

Full review: Human nature, at war for itself.

For centuries, that was the fundamental view of our interior life: a perpetual struggle between the brain—the capital of rationality—and the heart, the sloppy seat of passion.

A line from Ludacris's 'Can't Live with You' voices this dilemma: "...my mind says yes, but my heart says no"—a conundrum whose lyrical ancestry runs from Shakespeare to Coleridge (Samuel T.) to Cole (Porter}.

But that vexing civil war, with its shifting fields of victory and surrender, has actually never been waged with such crisp skirmishing. Indeed, the fact that we can't trust our brains to be sober assessors, that they are as lacking in objective vigilance as the untrustworthy heart, that they were wired by an ancient (and often amoral) electrician and as such are no longer entirely useful in a modern age, has become reasonably well known to the general reader.

Disciplines from neuroscience to behavioral psychology to evolutionary biology have created a new cranial transparency that's unleashed a gush of books like Blink by Malcolm Gladwell; Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior by Ori Brafman and Ron Brafman; Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein; and The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic and Work and at Home by Dan Airely. (I interviewed Dan about his book for the Barnes & Noble Review.)

David J. Linden, a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins, and the author of The Accidental Mind, adds to this emerging, solipsistic genre with The Compass of Pleasure, a book that focuses entirely on how our brains pursue and process pleasure. He also has put forth a strong candidate for the Guinness record for winding subtitles: "How Our Brains Make Fatty Food, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good."

The one advantage of this self-conscious unspooling of wily juxtapositions is that it provides enough visibility into Linden's intentions that you can skip the rest of the book.

That might be too harsh, so let me back up and explain why I found the amped-up promise of this book to be ultimately disappointing. In his prologue Linden establishes his goal for the book, writing that he's seeking a "cross-cultural biological explanation" for pleasure that over- leaps "cultural anthropology or social history." His argument is that "most experiences-that we find transcendent—whether illicit vices or socially sanctioned ritual and social practices as diverse as exercise, meditative prayer, or even charitable giving—activate an anatomically and biochemically defined pleasure circuit in the brain."

That would be exciting if it were at all new. But the existence of the medial forebrain pleasure circuit is reasonably settled neuroscience. At least that was my understanding. So to make sure this reviewer isn't stepping into areas where I am untrained (and unbrained) I turned to the global hive mind, Wikipedia, which reports:

It is commonly accepted that the MFB is part of the reward system, involving in the integration of reward and pleasure. Electrical stimulation of the medial forebrain bundle is believed to cause sensations of pleasure. This hypothesis is based upon intracrancial self- stimulation (ICSS) studies. Animals will work for MFB ICSS, and humans report that MRB ICSS is intensely pleasurable.
So it turns out that Linden's gauntlet is pretty gaunt. I'm sorry, but I have real trouble with a science writer who confuses a bold thesis with a mechanical summary, who writes with faux courage "In this book I will argue" when there is no argument. This isn't a cavil. You're a professor of neuroscience at Hopkins, dude. If you're writing a book that breaks no new ground but aggregates a lot of research and makes it understandable for the lay reader, then that's what your prologue should say.

Misleading expectations aside, The Compass of Pleasure does a workmanlike but uninspired job of condensing the current thinking about the ways in which our brains are wired for pleasure, the neurotransmitters that are part of this cascade of stimulation, and how this system provides a unified field theory of enjoyment that explains everything from sex to charitable giving to well, you've already seen the tell-all subhead.

Linden's chapters are devoted to an exegesis of those themes, and they follow a familiar structure. He starts with some framing and then goes on to offer supporting details that lay out the biological basis for different flavors of desire. The opening chapter, "Mashing the Pleasure Button"—which provides the neurological foundation for much of the book—describes a 1953 experiment involving rats and pleasure. Researchers planted an electrode in the rats' brains that, when a lever was pressed, would deliver direct stimulation to their little rodent pleasure centers. Turns out the rats went positively bonkers. They would opt for the stim even when hungry or thirsty, even when presented with a female in heat, even when they had to skip across electrified floors.

The neuro-extension of this to human beings is clear, and Linden goes on to explain how the pleasure center is the Kremlin of Desire, controlling our often self-immolating response to drugs and alcohol; sex; hunger; altruism; exercise—as well as the basis of virtually all forms of addictive behavior. Linden grimly notes: "Sex addiction is very real, and it takes a terrible toll." (Note to editor: Being late with this piece enables me to tie the book to the antics of a well-known congressman for added reader relevance and #Twitter potential.)

Linden comes to us through the hip professor door; you can see a pony tail sneaking out in his author photo, and his blurb bio notes that he lives in Baltimore with his "two pleasure-seeking children." He salts his book with contemporary references to wake up the class, as in wondering if stimulation of the human brain produces "a crazy pleasure that's better than food or sex or sleep or even Seinfeld reruns?" (Not even the Soup Nazi episode is better than sex.)

It would have been interesting to hear what Linden has to say about a society—and a consumer economy for that matter—that are largely organized around the delivery of pleasure through shiny products, many of them battery operated, many of them with half-bitten Apples on them, that activate our pleasure centers. Are we being turned into docile slaves, controlled by corporate electrodes that keep us on the hedonic treadmill? I also would have liked for Linden to have conducted some experiments of his own—unlike other books of this kind, there is, notably, no self-generated research cited by the author—for example, to see if all those anxious, greedy dopamine receptors light up when you're watching the polemicists of your choice on Fox or MSNBC. Yes, it's unfair of reviewers to slam a writer for the book they didn't write (even though it happens all the time.)

I wish I could have thought more highly of The Compass of Pleasure. It's hard to criticize a neuroscientist, but what Linden has published is a rehash that's in denial of its own textbookishness. It's like he left five graduate students alone with a Google search box and some Red Bull. A few weeks later, what you've got is a collection of some well- known studies and generally accepted neurological frameworks; a basic accounting of the mechanism by which multiple addictions emerge from the same genetic characteristics; and some zoological salacity, as in the presence of male-to-male anal sex in sheep and giraffes. My pleasure center is not even amused. —Adam Hanft

Adam Hanft is a nationally known cultural critic, an authority on social trends and branding. He is the founder and CEO of Hanft Projects, and blogs for the Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, Fast Company, and Politics Daily. He is also a frequent commentator on National Public Radio's Marketplace, and is the co-writer, with Faith Popcorn, of The Dictionary of the Future. You can follow him at twitter.com/hanft.

Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781101476413
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/14/2011
  • Sold by: Penguin Group
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 339,300
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

David J. Linden is a professor of neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. The author of The Accidental Mind—winner of a Silver Medal at the Independent Publisher's Book Awards—he serves as the editor in chief of the Journal of Neurophysiology. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

Read More Show Less

Read an Excerpt

Praise for The Compass of Pleasure

“In his book The Compass of Pleasure, the Johns Hopkins neurobiologist David J. Linden explicates the workings of [the regions of the brain] known collectively as the reward system, elegantly drawing on sources ranging from personal experience to studies of brain activity to experiments with molecules and genes.”

The New York Times Book Review

“Important, timely, and fascinating.”

—Naomi Wolf, author of The Shock Doctrine, The Beauty Myth, and The End of America

“[H]ugely entertaining . . . If you’re science-phobic, don’t worry: Linden is incredibly smart, but comes across as the funny, patient professor you wish you’d had in college.”

—www.npr.org

“How do orgasms, heroin, greasy foods, and juicy gossip jolt the same neurons? Neuroscientist David Linden delves into the research, mixing in plenty of trippy anecdotes.”

Psychology Today

“Linden’s conversational style, his abundant use of anecdotes, and his successful coupling of wit with insight makes the book a joy to read. Even the footnotes are sprinkled with hidden gems.”

Publishers Weekly

“Conventional wisdom advises, “If it feels good, stop it. If it tastes good, spit it out.” But why? Because indulging pleasurable excess, whether of drugs, food, or sex, has an unforgiving downside. The biology of how we know this is the topic of Linden’s fascinating, by turns technical and entertaining effort.”

—Donna Chavez, Booklist

“This cheerful summary of the brain’s reward system is a profound experience. . . . Pleasure is a superb book. My brain has been changed by reading it.”

—Leo Benedictus, The Guardian (London)

“This book is highly readable and full of fascinating facts and theories. . . . You’re sure to get pleasure from reading Pleasure.”

—Susan Blackmore, BBC Focus (London)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David J. Linden is a professor of neuroscience at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. The author of The Accidental Mind (2007), The Compass of Pleasure (2011), and most recently, Touch (2015), he served for many years as the chief editor of The Journal of Neurophysiology. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland, with his two children.

Praise for The Compass of Pleasure

About the Author

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Epigraph

Prologue

CHAPTER ONE Mashing the Pleasure Button

CHAPTER TWO Stoned Again

CHAPTER THREE Feed Me

CHAPTER FOUR Your Sexy Brain

CHAPTER FIVE Gambling and Other Modern Compulsions

CHAPTER SIX Virtuous Pleasures (and a Little Pain)

CHAPTER SEVEN The Future of Pleasure

Acknowledgments

Notes

Index

“Pleasure never comes sincere to man;

but lent by heaven upon hard usury.”

—John Dryden, Edippus

“Phil was probably passed out somewhere, enjoying his dead father’s legacy. I found myself wishing I had a loved one who would die and leave me their barbiturates, but I couldn’t think of anyone who’d ever loved me that much. My uncle had already promised his to the mail lady.”

—Donald Ray Pollock, “Bactine”

PROLOGUE

Bangkok, 1989. The afternoon rains have ended, leaving the early evening air briefly free of smog and allowing that distinctive Thai perfume, frangipani with a faint note of sewage, to waft over the shiny streets. I hail a tuk-tuk, a three-wheel motorcycle taxi, and hop aboard. My young driver has an entrepreneurial smile as he turns around and begins the usual interrogation of male travelers.

“So …you want girl?”

“No.”

“I see.” Long pause, eyebrows slowly raised. “You want boy!”

“Uh, no.”

Longer pause. Sound of engine sputtering at idle. “You want ladyboy?”

“No,” I answer, a bit more emphatically, nonplussed at the idea that I give the impression of desiring this particular commodity.

“I got cheap cigarettes …Johnnie Walker …”

“No thanks.”

Undaunted, he moves on to the next category of his wares, now with lowered voice.

“You want ganja?”

“No.”

“Coke?”

“No.”

“Ya baa [methamphetamine tablets]?”

“Nope.”

A whisper now. “Heroin?”

“No.”

Voice raised back to normal. “I can take you to cockfight. You can gamble!”

“I’ll pass.”

Just a little bit irritated now. “So, farang, what you want?”

“Prik kee noo,” I respond. “Those little ‘mouse shit’ peppers. I want some good, spicy dinner.” My driver, not surprisingly, is disappointed. As we tear through the streets to a restaurant, blasting through puddles, I’m left wondering: Aside from various shades of illegality, what do all his offers have in common? What is it exactly that makes a vice?

We humans have a complicated and ambivalent relationship to pleasure, which we spend an enormous amount of time and resources pursuing. A key motivator of our lives, pleasure is central to learning, for we must find things like food, water, and sex rewarding in order to survive and pass our genetic material to the next generation. Certain forms of pleasure are accorded special status. Many of our most important rituals involving prayer, music, dance, and meditation produce a kind of transcendent pleasure that has become deeply ingrained in human cultural practice.

As we do with most powerful forces, however, we also want to regulate pleasure. In cultures around the world we find well-defined ideas and rules about pleasure that have persisted throughout history in any number of forms and variations:

Pleasure should be sought in moderation.

Pleasure must be earned.

Pleasure must be achieved naturally.

Pleasure is transitory.

The denial of pleasure can yield spiritual growth.

Our legal systems, our religions, our educational systems are all deeply concerned with controlling pleasure. We have created detailed rules and customs surrounding sex, drugs, food, alcohol, and even gambling. Jails are bursting with people who have violated laws that proscribe certain forms of pleasure or who profit by encouraging others to do so.

One can fashion reasonable theories of human pleasure and its regulation using the methods of cultural anthropology or social history. These are valid and useful endeavors, for ideas and practices involving human pleasure are certainly deeply influenced by culture. However, what I’m seeking here in The Compass of Pleasure is a different type of understanding—one less nuanced, perhaps, but more fundamental: a cross-cultural biological explanation. In this book I will argue that most experiences in our lives that we find transcendent—whether illicit vices or socially sanctioned ritual and social practices as diverse as exercise, meditative prayer, or even charitable giving—activate an anatomically and biochemically defined pleasure circuit in the brain. Shopping, orgasm, learning, highly caloric foods, gambling, prayer, dancing ’til you drop, and playing on the Internet: They all evoke neural signals that converge on a small group of interconnected brain areas called the medial forebrain pleasure circuit. It is in these tiny clumps of neurons that human pleasure is felt. This intrinsic pleasure circuitry can also be co-opted by artificial activators like cocaine or nicotine or heroin or alcohol. Evolution has, in effect, hardwired us to catch a pleasure buzz from a wide variety of experiences from crack to cannabis, from meditation to masturbation, from Bordeaux to beef.

This theory of pleasure reframes our understanding of the part of the human body that societies are most intent upon regulating. While we might assume that the anatomical region most closely governed by laws, religious prohibitions, and social mores is the genitalia, or the mouth, or the vocal cords, it is actually the medial forebrain pleasure circuit. As societies and as individuals, we are hell-bent on achieving and controlling pleasure, and it is those neurons, deep in our brains, that are the nexus of that struggle.

These particular neurons also comprise another battleground. The dark side of pleasure is, of course, addiction. It is now becoming clear that addiction is associated with long-lasting changes in the electrical, morphological, and biochemical functions of neurons and synaptic connections within the medial forebrain pleasure circuit. There are strong suggestions that these changes underlie many of the terrifying aspects of addiction, including tolerance (needing successively larger doses to get high), craving, withdrawal, and relapse. Provocatively, such persistent changes appear to be nearly identical to experience-and learning-driven changes in neural circuitry that are used to store memories in other brain regions. In this way, memory, pleasure, and addiction are closely intertwined.

However, addiction is not the only force responsible for experience-driven changes within the brain’s pleasure circuits. The combination of associative learning and pleasure has created nothing less than a cognitive miracle: We can be motivated by pleasure to achieve goals that are entirely arbitrary—goals that may or may not have an evolutionary adaptive value. These can be as wide-ranging as reality-based television and curling. For us humans (and probably for other primates and for cetaceans as well), even mere ideas can activate the pleasure circuit. Our eclecticism where pleasure is concerned serves to make our human existence wonderfully rich and complex.

I like to tell the students in my lab that the golden age of brain research is right now, so it’s time to get down to business. This sounds like a cheap motivational gimmick, but it’s true. Our accumulating understanding of neural function, coupled with enabling technologies that allow us to measure and manipulate the brain with unprecedented precision, has given us new and often counterintuitive insights into behavioral and cognitive phenomena  at the levels of biological processes. Nowhere is this more evident than in the neurobiology of pleasure. One example: Do you, like many, think that drug addicts become drug addicts because they derive greater reward from getting high than others? The biology says no: They actually seem to want it more but like it less.

This level of analysis is not only of academic interest. Understanding the biological basis of pleasure leads us to fundamentally rethink the moral and legal aspects of addiction to drugs, food, sex, and gambling and the industries that manipulate these pleasures in the marketplace. It also calls for a reformation in our concepts of such virtuous and prosocial behaviors as sharing resources, self-deprivation, and the drive for knowledge. Crucially, brain imaging studies show that giving to charity, paying taxes, and receiving information about future events all activate the same neural pleasure circuit that’s engaged by heroin or orgasm or fatty foods. Perhaps, most important, analysis of the molecular basis of enduring changes in the brain’s pleasure circuitry holds great promise for developing drugs and other therapies to help people break free of addictions of many sorts, to both substances and experiences.

When I was a postdoctoral fellow at the Roche Institute of Molecular Biology in the early 1990s, I was fortunate to work with Sid Udenfriend, a pioneer in the biochemistry of the brain and a real mensch. Sid’s favorite pedagogical phrase, usually intoned at the bar, was “It’s always good to know a little chemistry.” I couldn’t agree more. It would be possible to write a book exploring the brain’s pleasure circuits that was free of not only molecules but also basic anatomy, but that sort of spoon-feeding would require ignoring some of the most interesting and important issues, and so that’s not what you’ll find here. If you come along for the ride and work with me just a bit to learn some basic neuroscience, I’ll do my best to make it lively and fun as we explore the cellular and molecular basis of human pleasure, transcendent experience, and addiction.

CHAPTER ONE

MASHING THE PLEASURE BUTTON

Montréal, 1953. Fortunately, Peter Milner and James Olds didn’t have perfect aim. While postdoctoral fellows at McGill University, under the direction of the renowned psychologist Donald Hebb, Olds and Milner were conducting experiments that involved implanting electrodes deep in the brains of rats. The implanting surgery, conducted while the animals were anesthetized, involved cementing a pair of electrodes half a millimeter apart to their skulls. After a few days of recovery from the surgery, the rats were fine. Long, flexible wires were then attached to the electrodes at one end and to an electrical stimulator at the other, to allow for activation of the specific brain region where the tips of the electrodes had come to rest.

One fall day Olds and Milner were testing a rat in which they had attempted to target a structure called the midbrain reticular system. Located at the midline of the brain, at the point where its base tapers to form the brain stem, this region had previously been shown by another lab to control sleeping and waking cycles. In this particular surgery, however, the electrodes had gone astray and come to rest still at the midline, but at a somewhat more forward position in the brain, in a region called the septum.

The rat in question was placed in a large rectangular box with corners labeled A, B, C, and D and was allowed to explore freely. Whenever the rat went to corner A, Olds pressed a button that delivered a brief, mild electrical shock through the implanted electrodes. (Unlike the rest of the body, brain tissue does not have the receptors that allow for pain detection, so such shocks don’t produce a painful sensation within the skull.) After a few jolts, the rat kept returning to corner A and finally fell asleep in a different location. The next day, however, the rat seemed even more interested in corner A than the others. Olds and Milner were excited: They believed that they had found a brain region that, when stimulated, provoked general curiosity. However, further experiments on this same rat soon proved that not to be the case. By this time, the rat had acquired a habit of returning often to corner A to be stimulated. The researchers then tried to coax the rat away from corner A by administering a shock every time the rat made a step in the direction of corner B. This worked all too well—within five minutes, the rat relocated to corner B. Further investigation revealed that this rat could be directed to any location within the box with well-timed brain shocks—brief ones to guide the rat to the target location and then more sustained ones once it arrived there.

Many years earlier the psychologist B. F. Skinner had devised the operant conditioning chamber, or “Skinner box,” in which a lever press by an animal triggered either a reinforcing stimulus, such as delivery of food or water, or a punishing stimulus, such as a painful foot shock. Rats placed in a Skinner box will rapidly learn to press a lever for a food reward and to avoid pressing a lever that delivers the shock. Olds and Milner now modified the chamber so that a lever press would deliver direct brain stimulation through the implanted electrodes. What resulted was perhaps the most dramatic experiment in the history of behavioral neuroscience: Rats would press the lever as many as seven thousand times per hour to stimulate their brains. They weren’t stimulating a “curiosity center” at all—this was a pleasure center, a reward circuit, the activation of which was much more powerful than any natural stimulus. A series of subsequent experiments revealed that rats preferred pleasure circuit stimulation to food (even when they were hungry) and water (even when they were thirsty). Self-stimulating male rats would ignore a female in heat and would repeatedly cross foot-shock-delivering floor grids to reach the lever. Female rats would abandon their newborn nursing pups to continually press the lever. Some rats would self-stimulate as often as two thousand times per hour for twenty-four hours, to the exclusion of all other activities. They had to be unhooked from the apparatus to prevent death by self-starvation. Pressing that lever became their entire world (Figure 1.1).

Further work was done to systematically vary the placement of the electrode tips and thereby map the reward circuits of the brain. These experiments revealed that stimulation of the outer (and upper) surface of the brain, the neocortex, where sensory and motor processing mostly reside, produced no reward—the rats continued to press the lever at chance levels. However, deep in the brain, there was not just a single discrete location underlying reward. Rather, a group of interconnected structures, all located near the base of the brain and distributed along the midline, constituted the reward circuit. These included the ventral tegmental area, the nucleus accumbens, the medial forebrain bundle, and the septum, as well as portions of the thalamus and hypothalamus (more on these various regions later). Not all these areas were equally rewarding. Stimulation in some parts of this medial forebrain pleasure circuit could support self-stimulation rates of seven thousand lever presses per hour, while others elicited only two hundred per hour.

Figure 1.1 Self-stimulation of the pleasure circuit in a rat. When the rat presses the lever, it causes brief electrical stimulation to travel down the wire and activate the electrodes implanted deep in the rat’s brain, in various portions of the medial forebrain pleasure circuit. This setup can be modified in several useful ways. For example, the electronics can be configured so that a rat must make many lever presses to get a single stimulation. In addition, a hollow needle can be implanted together with the stimulating electrodes to inject drugs directly into the pleasure circuit. Illustration by Joan M. K. Tycko.

It’s hard to imagine now, but in 1953 the notion that motivational or pleasure/reward mechanisms could be localized to certain brain regions or circuits was highly controversial. The dominant theory, which had held sway for many years, was that excitation of the brain was always punishing and that learning and the development of behavior could be explained solely by punishment avoidance. This was called the drive-reduction hypothesis. In Olds’s characterization of the theory, “pain supplies the push and learning based on pain reduction supplies the direction.” There was no need for reward or pleasure: This model was all stick, no carrot. The pioneering experiments of Olds and Milner clearly demolished the punishment-only model in favor of a more comprehensive, hedonistic view that “behavior is pulled forward by pleasure as well as pushed forward by pain.”1

I know what you’re thinking: What does it feel like for a human to have his or her medial forebrain reward circuitry stimulated with an electrode? Does it produce a crazy pleasure that’s better than food or sex or sleep or even Seinfeld reruns? We do in fact know the answer to that question. The bad news is that that answer comes, in part, from some deeply unethical experiments.

Dr. Robert Galbraith Heath was the founder and chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Neurology at Tulane University in New Orleans. He served from 1949 to 1980, and during that time the major focus of his work involved stimulation of the brains of institutionalized psychiatric patients, often African Americans, using surgically implanted electrodes. His main goal—to use brain stimulation to relieve the symptoms of psychiatric disorders such as major depression and schizophrenia—was laudable. However, he did not obtain proper informed consent from his patients and took decisions in experimental design that would never be approved by modern human-subjects ethical review boards.

Perhaps the most egregious example was reported in a paper entitled “Septal stimulation for the initiation of heterosexual behavior in a homosexual male,” published in the Journal of Behavioral Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry in 1972.2 The rationale behind this experiment was that because stimulation of the septal area evoked pleasure, if it was combined with heterosexual imagery it could “bring about heterosexual behavior in a fixed, overt homosexual male.” And so Patient B-19, a twenty-four-year-old male homosexual of average intelligence who suffered from depression and obsessive-compulsive tendencies, was wheeled into the operating room. Electrodes were implanted at nine different sites in deep regions of his brain, and three months were allowed to pass after the surgery to allow for healing (Figure 1.2). Initially stimulation was delivered to all nine electrodes in turn. However, only the electrode implanted in the septum produced pleasurable sensations. When Patient B-19 was finally allowed free access to the stimulator, he quickly began mashing the button like an eight-year-old playing Donkey Kong. According to the paper,

During these sessions, B-19 stimulated himself to a point that, both behaviorally and introspectively, he was experiencing an almost overwhelming euphoria and elation and had to be disconnected despite his vigorous protests.

So, not to put too fine a point on it, Heath’s patient responded just as Olds and Milner’s rats had. Given the chance, he would stimulate his pleasure circuit to the exclusion of all else.

Lest anyone think that it is only men—creatures of inherently base urges—who would respond in this manner, another recorded case, performed by a different group, involved a woman who received an electrode implant in her thalamus, an adjacent deep brain structure, to control chronic pain. This technique has proven effective for some patients whose severe pain is not well-controlled by drugs. However, in this patient the stimulation spread to nearby brain structures, producing an intense pleasurable and sexual feeling:

At its most frequent, the patient self-stimulated through out the day, neglecting her personal hygiene and family commitments. A chronic ulceration developed at the tip of the finger used to adjust the amplitude dial and she frequently tampered with the device in an effort to increase the stimulation amplitude. At times she implored her family to limit her access to the stimulator, each time demanding its return after a short hiatus.3

Figure 1.2 A patient of Dr. Robert Galbraith Heath with chronically implanted electrodes, one of which activated the medial forebrain bundle passing through the septum, a key part of the pleasure circuit. From Robert G. Heath, “Depth recording and stimulation studies in patients,” in Arthur Winter, ed., The Surgical Control of Behavior (Springfield, Il.: Charles C. Thomas, 1971), 24. Reprinted with permission from Charles C. Thomas.

Back to Patient B-19: Before his brain stimulation began, he was shown a “15 min long ‘stag’ film featuring sexual intercourse and related activities between a male and female.” Not surprisingly, he was sexually indifferent to this material and even a bit angry about being made to view it. Following pleasure circuit self-stimulation, however, he readily agreed to re-view the film “… and during its showing became sexually aroused, had an erection and masturbated to orgasm.” All this in the decidedly unsexy environment of the lab. So, with the patient starting to exhibit heterosexual tendencies, what were the experimenters to do? Would he ever have an actual sexual relationship with a woman? After careful consideration of all the options and with the well-being of the patient foremost in their minds, Drs. Heath and Charles E. Moan made a sober medical and scientific decision: Upon getting approval from the attorney general of the state of Louisiana, they hired a hooker to come to the lab at Tulane and attempt to seduce him. She succeeded—they had sexual intercourse. The concluding sentence to the lengthy, overly descriptive paragraph describing their two-hour-long sexual encounter reads, “Then, despite the milieu and the encumbrance of the electrode wires [poor B-19 was attached to an EEG machine the whole time], he successfully ejaculated [in her vagina].”

Did Patient B-19 actually become heterosexual? Following discharge from the hospital, he had a sexual relationship with a married woman for several months, much to the delight of Drs. Moan and Heath, who found this development quite encouraging. His homosexual activity was reduced during this period, but did not stop completely: He still liked to turn tricks with men to earn money. Long-term follow-up information was not available. Writing in the discussion section of their scientific report, Moan and Heath were enthusiastic about the prospects for this therapy: “Of central interest in the case of B-19 was the effectiveness of pleasurable stimulation of new and more adaptive sexual behavior.” While it’s clear that Patient B-19 found the brain stimulation to be intensely pleasurable, I’m not convinced that he truly became heterosexual, even temporarily. It should also be cautioned that this report concerns only a single individual, not a population (with a control group).

This study is morally repugnant on many different levels—the profound arrogance of attempting to “correct” someone’s sexual orientation, the medical risk of unjustified brain surgery, the gross violations of privacy and human dignity. Fortunately, homosexual conversion therapy with brain surgery and pleasure center stimulation was soon abandoned. Stepping back a bit, what we are left with, from this and a handful of other studies, is an appreciation of the immense power of direct electrical stimulation of the brain’s pleasure circuitry to influence human behavior, at least in the near term.

Let’s now take a minute to consider some important details of the pleasure circuit. I hesitate to burden you with neuroanatomy, but just a smidgen will go a long way in explaining how we experience pleasure. We’ll use the rat as an example, which is appropriate because the anatomy of the rat’s pleasure circuit is very similar to that of our own (Figure 1.3). When neurons in the region called the ventral tegmental area (VTA) are active, brief electrical impulses (called spikes) race from their cell bodies (located in the VTA proper) along long, thin information-sending fibers called axons. The axons have specialized structures at their endpoints called axon terminals. Some of the axon terminals of the VTA neurons are located some distance away in a region called the nucleus accumbens. When the traveling electrical spikes reach the axon terminals, they trigger the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is stored in the terminals in tiny membrane-bound blobs called vesicles. When a spike enters the axon terminal, it initiates a complex series of electrical and chemical events that result in the fusion of the vesicle membrane with the membrane of the axon terminal, thereby causing the contents of the vesicle, including the dopamine neurons, to be released into a narrow fluid-filled space surrounding the axon terminal called the synaptic cleft. The dopamine molecules then diffuse and bind to specialized dopamine receptors on their target neurons, initiating a series of chemical signals therein (Figure 1.4).

Figure 1.3 The pleasure circuit in the brain of a rat. This view shows a section through the middle of the rat brain, oriented so that the nose is at the left and the tail at the right. The central axis of the pleasure circuit is the dopamine-containing neurons of the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and their axons, drawn in white, which project to the nucleus accumbens. These VTA neurons also send their dopamine-releasing axons to the prefrontal cortex, the dorsal striatum, the amygdala, and the hippocampus. The VTA neurons receive excitatory drive from the prefrontal cortex and inhibitory drive from the nucleus accumbens. Illustration by Joan M. K. Tycko.

Neurons of the VTA also send dopamine-releasing axons to other brain regions, including the amygdala and the anterior cingulate cortex, which are emotion centers; the dorsal striatum, involved in some forms of habit learning; the hippocampus, involved in memory for facts and events; and the prefrontal cortex, a region that controls judgment and planning (and that is particularly expanded in humans as compared with other mammals).

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 16 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(6)

4 Star

(1)

3 Star

(5)

2 Star

(2)

1 Star

(2)

Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Noble.com Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & Noble.com that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & Noble.com does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at BN.com or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation

Reminder:

  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & Noble.com and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Noble.com Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & Noble.com reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & Noble.com also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on BN.com. It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

 
Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously
Sort by: Showing all of 16 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 29, 2014

    very pleased with the book and speed of shipment

    very pleased with the book and speed of shipment

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted June 1, 2012

    Insightful book with some confusing parts

    A nice read but yo yo's between explaining complex concepts simply and explaining complex concepts in a complexing ways!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 22, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted July 26, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted September 13, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted June 7, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted October 1, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted July 10, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted September 19, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 21, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted June 25, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted July 25, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 19, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 25, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted August 1, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted July 27, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

Sort by: Showing all of 16 Customer Reviews

If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
Why is this product inappropriate?
Comments (optional)