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Johns Hopkins Health - Exploring the Science of Pleasure

Fall 2011
Issue No. 14

Exploring the Science of Pleasure

Date: October 12, 2011

woman eating chocolate

That certain activities and substances are pleasurable is not news. But understanding why is the subject of continuous research.

David J. Linden, Ph.D., a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, has significantly advanced our knowledge about pleasure. He published his findings in the book The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good.

According to Linden, everyone’s brain has a “pleasure circuit” that is active during pleasurable activity. The pleasure circuit is activated both by vices, such as gambling, and virtuous activities, such as exercise.

For most people, the end result is pleasure. But in those who have variants in their genes that alter how signals are sent to the pleasure circuit, something else happens.
“In the development of addiction, people move from a state in which they take pleasure from the substance or behavior and move into a place where they aren’t taking much pleasure at all,” Linden explains. “They just do it to avoid withdrawal or feeling bad.”

This area of study, which is ongoing, can help doctors better understand and treat addiction.