Brain science is an endlessly fascinating field. Each day, it seems, a new neurological study is published revealing a link between this or that activity and this or that region of the brain, or that a certain neurotransmitter is related to the regulation of a certain behavior, and so on. Yesterday’s encounter with the wonders of neurology came while listening to David Linden, professor of neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, being interviewed on NPR. Linden’s new book, The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good, as the inelegant subtitle more than suggests, explores the role of the brain in the experience of pleasure.
Much of the interview focuses on a discussion of the neurology of addiction leading Linden to warn,
“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.”
Initially, I was struck by two considerations after listening to the interview, both relating to the practical consequences of the science Linden discussed. First, how oddly Aristotelian all the practical considerations come out sounding: virtues and vices, habits, and moderation. Secondly, how little difference this knowledge made for Linden in his own lived experience. Here is the very last exchange from the interview:
NPR: Since you have studied pleasure and the pleasure circuitry of the brain, has that affected your own relationship with pleasure and the things that you seek or try not to get pleasure from?
Linden: Well, I try deeply not to let it do that. I certainly — when I’m enjoying a glass of wine I don’t want to be thinking about dopamine levels and, for the most part, fortunately I have been able to avoid doing that. I’m blessed with not having a particularly addictive personality — although I’m a bit of a hedonist — so it hasn’t actually made t0o much of an impact on my own life.
This is a rather jarring note on which to wrap up the interview. I’ve ordinarily been one to subscribe to A.E. Housman’s line, “All Human Knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use.” And mostly, I would still want to defend something like that claim. Yet, there is something peculiar about our coming to know more about the biological and neurological base of human life, purportedly the real stuff on which all human life and action rests, only to find that for an ordinary, healthy adult steeped in this knowledge, it makes not much of a difference at all, and, in fact, that he consciously tries to disassociate his knowledge from his experience. This bears more reflection, but there was one final thought, more directly related to the usual themes on this blog that I wanted to note.
Understanding the Internet’s personal and social consequences involves venturing into the territory mapped out by Linden and others in his field. Pleasure of some sort — whether benign, problematic, or illicit — is involved in our daily interactions with the Internet. If there is a certain compulsiveness to our online experience, then it is because our internet experience shares in an economy of desire, pleasure, and cycles of stimulation and diminishing return that potentially lead to addictive behavior.
We know that society tolerates certain addictive behaviors more than others, sometimes in seemingly arbitrary fashion. Internet addiction may carry only a slight social stigma if any at all; one is tempted rather to conclude that it carries a certain social cachet. Whether socially acceptable or not, compulsive (or addictive, take your pick) Internet use does appear to have certifiably negative physical consequences in the brain. A study just published in PLoS ONE suggests that heavy Internet use, particularly online gaming, leads to significant alterations in brain structure with detrimental consequences for cognitive function. You can read more about the study here, here, and here.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the first of those three articles concludes its report with an appeal to the ancient Roman writer Petronius: “Moderation in all things, including moderation.” I’m not sure if the writer meant to endorse Petronius’ playful, perhaps satirical tone; more likely it was intended as a straightforward prescription of moderation.