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


Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

Everything You Know About Space Is Wrong - Matt Brown ****

What we have here is a feast of assertions some people make about space that are satisfyingly incorrect, with pithy, entertaining explanations of what the true picture is. Matt Brown admits in his introduction that a lot of these incorrect facts are nitpicking - more on that in a moment - but it doesn't stop them being delightful. I particularly enjoyed the ones about animals in space and about the Moon.

Along the way, we take in space exploration, the Earth's place in space, the Moon, the solar system, the universe and a collection of random oddities, such as the fact that Mozart didn't write Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Sometimes the wrongness comes from a frequent misunderstanding. So, for example, Brown corrects the idea that Copernicus was the first to say that the Earth moves around the Sun. Sometimes there's some very careful wording. This is used when Brown challenges the idea that the Russian dog Laika was the first animal in space. What we discover is that, i…

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs - Lisa Randall ****

I did my PhD in galactic dynamics - which is an awkward subject when people want to know what its relevance to the 'real world' is. So I was excited when Clube and Napier's book The Cosmic Serpent came out, around the same time, because it provided me with a ready-made answer. It argued that the comets which occasionally crash into Earth with disastrous results - such as the extinction of the dinosaurs - are perturbed from their normal orbits by interactions with the large-scale structure of the galaxy.

I was reminded of this idea a few years ago when there was a flurry of media interest in Lisa Randall's "dark matter and the dinosaurs" conjecture. I was sufficiently enthusiastic about it to write an article on the subject for Fortean Times - though my enthusiasm didn't quite extend to purchasing her hardback book at the time. However, now that it's out in paperback I've remedied the situation - and I'm glad I did.

Dark matter is believed to exi…