Skip to main content

Pleasure [The Compass of Pleasure] – David J. Linden ****

There are times when I feel like the bowl of petunias in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. For those who aren’t initiates, these petunias were created in space above a planet (along with a sperm whale) as a side effect of a spaceship using an ‘infinite improbability drive.’ As the whale falls it goes through various philosophical discoveries before going splat. The bowl of petunias just thinks ‘Oh no, not again.’
The reason for this rather long-winded introduction is that at the moment the popular science market is absolutely flooded with books about emotions and feelings. The touch-feelies have taken over the science asylum. Less than a year ago there was How Pleasure Works, we’ve had at least two books on happiness, more on human attraction, others on wellbeing. Frankly, it can make you want to be miserable. If I’m honest I wasn’t greatly cheered up by the subtitle ‘How our brains make junk food, exercise, marijuana, generosity and gambling feel so good.’ It sounds to be trying too hard. (It’s interesting that it was felt okay to mention drugs in the subtitle, but not sex, which is obviously another of the topics this book covers.) And yet… and yet the book actually delivers some enjoyable, dare I say pleasurable, moments.
As I read David Linden’s prologue, starting with a conversation with a taxi-driver in Bangkok offering him pretty well every vice available, I thought ‘this is going to be fun’ – and it often is. Linden makes an excellent point about the apparent strangeness of the way practically every pleasure is also a vice – something the rest of the book will explore and explain very thoroughly.
He then takes each of the principle pleasures suggested by that list in the subtitle (plus sex) and combines an exploration of just what the experience is from the brain’s viewpoint with details from research on how we (and various animals) respond to pleasurable stimuli, what the effects are on the brain and how the consequent signals are generated, transmitted and used. The first chapter looks at the early experimental setups that first made such studies possible, while the second concentrates on the impact of various drugs from LSD to caffeine, alcohol and nicotine, and also explores what addiction is. These first two chapters are absolutely brilliant. I was fascinated and learned a lot.
The minor problem is that after that it’s all a bit downhill (as it was for the bowl of petunias). Actually that’s a bit unfair. The part of each chapter about the experience and the experiments is always interesting. But when Linden gets on to explaining the biochemistry in each chapter this gets a trifle dull – there’s a slight feeling of ‘can we get over the jargon and back to the science, please.’ To get a feel for what I mean here is a randomly selected such bit:
‘This is particularly true of a subset of slow-acting glutamate receptors called metabotropic receptors, which have a more limited distribution in the nervous system and which are engaged only by particular patterns of neural activity. One receptor, called the metabotropic glutamate receptor type 5 (mGluR5) has received particular attention, as it is strongly expressed in key portions of the pleasure circuit, including the neurons of the nucleus accumbens and the dorsal striatum.’ That’s okay, then.
It’s not, obviously, that we’ve anything against the science bits. Popular science wouldn’t exactly work without them. But the key is making science accessible, and as Richard Feynman was fond of pointing out, biologists do sometimes seem to have an enthusiasm for labelling things, and considering knowing these names to be science in its own right.
So this was a book that started off brilliantly, and though it didn’t quite live up to its initial promise, it continued to produce fascinating insights and was well worth the effort of getting past the occasional dull bit to produce an overall powerful four star package. Perhaps not up with the heights of pleasure, but pleasurable nonetheless.
Paperback (US is Hardback):  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Einstein's Greatest Mistake - David Bodanis ****

Books on Einstein and his work are not exactly thin on the ground. There's even been more than one book before with a title centring on Einstein's mistake or mistakes. So to make a new title worthwhile it has do something different - and David Bodanis certainly achieves this with Einstein's Greatest Mistake. If I'm honest, the book isn't the greatest on the science or the history - but what it does superbly is tell a story. The question we have to answer is why that justifies considering this to be a good book.
I would compare Einstein's Greatest Mistake with the movie Lincoln -  it is, in effect, a biopic in book form with all the glory and flaws that can bring. Compared with a good biography, a biopic will distort the truth and emphasise parts of the story that aren't significant because they make for a good screen scene. But I would much rather someone watched the movie than never found out anything about Lincoln - and similarly I'd much rather someon…

Four Way Interview - Tom Cabot

Tom Cabot is a London-based book editor and designer with a background in experimental psychology, natural science and graphic design. He founded the London-based packaging company, Ketchup, and has produced and illustrated many books for the British Film Institute, Penguin and the Royal Institute of British Architects. Tom has held a lifelong passion to explain science graphically and inclusively ... ever since being blown away by Ray and Charles Eames’ Powers of Ten at an early age. His first book is Eureka, an infographic guide to science.

Why infographics?
For me infographics provided a way to present heavy-lifting science in an alluring and playful, but ultimately illuminating, way. And I love visualising data and making it as attractive as the ideas are.  The novelty of the presentation hopefully gets the reader to look afresh. I love the idea of luring in readers who might normally be put off by drier, more monotone science – people who left science behind at 16. I wanted the boo…

A Tale of Seven Scientists - Eric Scerri ***

Scientists sometimes tell us we're in a post-philosophy world. For example, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design bluntly say that that philosophy is 'dead' - no longer required, as science can do its job far better. However, other scientists recognise the benefits of philosophy, particularly when it is applied to their own discipline. One such is Eric Scerri, probably the world's greatest expert on the periodic table, who in this challenging book sets out to modify the philosophical models of scientific progress.

I ought to say straight away that A Tale of Seven Scientists sits somewhere on the cusp between popular science and a heavy duty academic title. For reasons that will become clear, I could only give it three stars if rating it as popular science, but it deserves more if we don't worry too much about it being widely accessible.

One minor problem with accessibility is that I've never read a book that took so long to get started. First t…