The Compass of Pleasure

The Compass of Pleasure – David J. Linden


I thought this was a great book on how the brain works, and why we seek pleasure and how this can lead to addiction and problems. I heard about from the Smart Recovery website which gave it a good review here:

I have become interested, over the past few years, in neuroscience and especially learning how to affect the way the brain works, by changing paths after using mindfulness long-term. I feel this is a great way to change your reactions to situations and substances and to live a much better lifestyle. I am surprised by the difference a few years of doing this has made to my life. A by-product of this practice, is that it has made me curious as to how the mind works, and also what causes addiction. A lot of what is written about the brain and addiction is really inaccurate, and is often an attempt for people in the 12 step world, to try to give their faith-based methods some credibility. Thankfully this book rises above all this and does not dumb down the subject at all, despite being written in a way that somebody like myself, who is not a Doctor can understand it.

The compass of pleasure


It urges caution about what we can read from things such as brain scans, which are often held up as evidence of chronic brain disease and the difference of an addicted persons brain to a normal member of society, by certain groups. It mentions that similar parts are stimulated in a similar way to taking heroin if you do something good such as donate to charity. It does acknowledge that many (mainly in America and not in the UK) call addiction a brain disease and does talk about the changes that take place in the brain after you subject it to years of alcohol abuse. I prefer to call addiction an illness rather than a disease but I feel the reasoning in the book is good on this area and I can accept the different terminology in this case, compared to some explanations. It discusses why some drugs are physically addictive, while other are not, and how gambling and sex can fit into the term addiction. It looks at the way that genetics play a part. There has never been a discovery of a gene that cause alcoholism, much to the dismay of many in AA, who like to claim they were an alcoholic before they had a drink, but does talk about how genetics would affect the way that some of us make lifestyle choices. It does not claim that alcoholism is completely hereditary, in the way some people try to. The genetic side is really interesting as he also mentions the effect of other exterior things such as stress along side the genetic explanation, that gives a good understanding of how many different forms of stimulation can drive the decision making in addiction or pleasure-seeking. It is interesting how evolution has played its part in pleasure-seeking in humans and other animals, but we must not underestimate the psychological side of things. I feel that many articles in the popular press create a false impression about the importance of genes in the role of addiction.

There are sections on food and sex and also references to various experiments on animals such as rats, and points out what you can and cannot conclude about human addiction from these tests as we have completely different lifestyles to an animal in a cage, that does not respond to the same types of stimulation as humans. It is in some ways a good book to read after the “Love and Addiction” book by Stanton Peele, as it deals with many similar issues, but is looking at the neurology of what is happening.

I think it is a mistake to moralize addiction in the way that society has a tendency to do, after being influenced by religious concepts from the 12 step movement. The book talks about why some people are driven to seek pleasure from substances or activities, even though it is detrimental to their general wellbeing.

Understanding the biology of the pleasure circuit helps us better understand and treat addiction, Linden says. It is important to realize that our pleasure circuits are the result of a combination of genetics, stress and life experience, beginning as early as the womb.

“Any one of us could be an addict at any time,” Linden says. “Addiction is not fundamentally a moral failing — it’s not a disease of weak-willed losers. When you look at the biology, the only model of addiction that makes sense is a disease-based model, and the only attitude towards addicts that makes sense is one of compassion.”

I like the way he calls it a diseased based model rather than a disease itself, as I still belive that the fact that we do have a choice to stop drinking, even though that is hard, is an important thing to realise when you are in recovery, and that you have to take responsibility for your recovery for it to work. I think the more that somebody knows about the problems they face the better as it allows them to make reasoned judgements about how they are going to approach recovery. This is one of the things that I feel is a problem with the 12 step world, where any variance from the religious approach is shunned, and many members of those organisations may find this book a real eye opener.

Some people who are in recovery love to blame their problems entirely on their genes or a disease, but it is certainly not as simple as that and this book shows you why many who drink, also have other pleasure-seeking habits such as smoking and gambling which are parts of a dysfunctional pleasure-seeking lifestyle. People who take recovery seriously and make many changes often do well compared to those that transfer addictions or rely on a recovery method for everything. This book illustrates why we need to take a step back and look at what is driving those pleasure-seeking cravings in various areas of our life before things get rather out of control.

The book is clear, funny, intellectually stimulating, and most important, provides a welcome alternative narrative to both the standard disease model, and the “it’s just a bad habit” psychological model. It surely provides a great argument for  an approach to treating addiction with both medication and a psycological approach that is up to date! I think that coming to terms with what was happening in my mind actually helps me deal with my paast problems with addiction and helps me dump the guilt aspect.  I can take a step back and look at something such as acraving if it occurs and deal with it these days, where as once I really wanted to act on it straight away.

I would really recommend it!

You can see it on amazon here



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