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Stanford Medicine

Neuroscience, Obesity, Podcasts

The brain’s control tower for pleasure

The brain's control tower for pleasure

Why is nicotine such a seductive mistress? What is it about gambling that attracts and consumes so many people? And what about obesity?  Is there some magical line that separates thin people from those who are fat?  Johns Hopkins neuroscientist David Linden, PhD, says that “neural signals that converge on a small group of interconnected brain areas called the medial forebrain region pleasure circuit” regulate how and why we feel pleasure.  That means there’s a control tower in the brain that is hardwired to regulate a range of human behaviors that make us feel good.   

I first became aware of Linden’s book, The Compass of Pleasure, through his interview with NPR’s Terry Gross.  I thought about the book again after listening to the media debate about whether New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s obesity indicated he wasn’t disciplined enough to be president of the United States. It made me consider the question: How much control do human beings actually have over bad behavior?  

Linden believes that we’re in a golden age of biomedical research and that our understanding about the intricacies of how the human brain functions and how it regulates behavior will unfold with increasing velocity.  In my latest 1:2:1 podcast, Linden reveals a lot of interesting facts about the human compass of pleasure  (for instance: sugary, fatty, salty substances rewire the pleasure circuit resulting in our desire to just want more, more, more) and makes you wonder just how much control we do have over our behavior. 

Presumably, lessons learned in neurobiology will at some point collide with public policy and make us rethink draconian punishments for human failings set by biology. Linden tells me, “Understanding the biological basis of pleasure leads us to fundamentally rethink the moral and legal aspects of addictions to drugs, food, sex and gambling and the industries that manipulate these things in the marketplace.” Hmmm – sounds rationale, right? But I wouldn’t bet the farm that public policy will catch up with neurological and scientific breakthroughs anytime soon. Not in this political climate, at least.

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