cherry's Reviews > The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good

The Compass of Pleasure by David J. Linden
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Aug 13, 12

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Read from August 07 to 13, 2012

As the British addiction expert Griffith Edwards says, "A lot of what drugs do to the mind is in the mind."


Addiction is not just a disease of weak-willed losers. Indeed, many of our most important historical figures have been drug addicts - not only the creative, arty types like Charles Baudelaire (hashish and opium) and Aldous Huxley (alcohol, mescaline, LSD), but also scientists like Sigmund Freud (cocaine) and hard-charging military leaders and heads of state from Alexander the Great (a massive alcoholic) to Prince Otto von Bismarck (who typically drank two bottles of wine with lunch and topped it off with a little morphine in the evening).


What happens in our brains when we fall in love?  For that matter, what happens to scientists that study the act of falling in love?  There’s something about this topic that makes otherwise hard-nosed biologists and anthropologists get all mushy and literary and start quoting the impassioned lines of Shakespeare, Ovid and Dante in their scientific papers.  In this spirit. I would like to offer my all-time-favorite love poem.  In my view, it gets to the heart of the matter.

I don’t want a physical relationship.
I just want someone to fuck with my mind.
                -Personal ad in the “L.A. Weekly” [circa 1979]

A philosophical question arises from these findings: If giving—even mandatory, anonymous giving—activates the brain’s pleasure centers, does that mean that “pure altruism” doesn’t really exist? In other words, if we catch a pleasure buzz from our noblest instincts, does that make them less noble? It’s worth noting that motivations for prosocial behavior have been a topic of intense interest in many philosophical and religious traditions. Kant, for example, wrote that acts driven by feelings of sympathy were not truly altruistic, and were thereby undeserving of praise, because they made the actor feel good. And this is not just a chilly Northern European notion: A similar idea is found in the Buddhist concept of dana, or pure altruism, giving divorced from even internal reward, a key attribute of the enlightened Bodhisattva. Harbaugh’s experiments would suggest that utterly pure altruism, giving without pleasure, is a very unnatural and difficult thing to achieve.


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