Dr. Linden’s book, The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning and Gambling Feel So Good (2011), is one of a new group of books that locate the addictive behaviours in the brain.

Dr. Linden’s book states that things that give us pleasure light up certain areas of the brain. He calls these areas ‘the pleasure circuit’. The pleasure circuit is located in the forebrain and is dependent on the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dr. Linden further explains that the pleasure circuit has been absolutely essential to our evolutionary survival. Activities, necessary to the reproduction of our species, for instance, eating, making love, hunting, he argues, are motivated by pleasure. “We must experience basic behaviours such as eating, drinking and mating as pleasurable (rewarding) in order to survive and procreate” (24).

Specifically, behaviours associated with eating fatty foods are atavistic, a throwback. They are wired into our genetic make-up. We ‘stocked up’ on these fats when they were available because they were scarce. In the present, however, that is translated into overeating.

While the primary concern here is food addiction, one of the strengths of Dr. Linden’s book is that he recognizes that addiction is interchangeable. Once the brain has developed a pleasure circuit around say, cocaine, it is very easy, to find another addiction to take its place. On August 15, 2011, The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) declared in a landmark statement that addiction is a disease of the brain. While many of the behaviours, they argued, attached to addictions, are criminal, they are not problems with the individual’s moral compass (see footnote for reference). They are a result of the brain disorder called addiction.

Dr. Linden makes the same distinction between a brain disorder and morality. “The idea that eating is primarily a conscious and voluntary behaviour is deeply rooted in our culture. We humans are invested in the notion that we have free will in all things. We want to believe that weight can be controlled by volition alone. Why can’t the fat guy just eat less and exercise more? He just lacks willpower, right? Not at all” (75-76). To reiterate then, addiction, any and all addiction, is a disease of the brain.

That food addiction is located in the same area of the brain as, say, heroin addiction, is a very new idea. This contribution to our way of thinking about food, and about addiction, has tremendous implications. Dr. Linden places some of the responsibility for food addiction on the shoulders of a profit-driven food industry. This industry, he argues, has understood the dynamics of addiction and has manipulated them to their benefit. They know certain foods activate the pleasure circuit. Just as a drug dealer lures his clients so do fast food chains lure theirs. Solutions can now be targeted away from ‘will power’ and to where it counts: how to manage the food industry, advertisements and the insidious and rampant exposure of triggers.

Knowing that addiction is intertwined and is located in the brain will make the treatment of food addiction feasible. The last words to Dr. Linden: Moving forward, it is likely that some of the treatments for drug addiction (stress reduction, relearning, as well as emerging pharmaceuticals that act on the brain’s reward circuitry or the stress hormones) will also be useful in treating food addiction” (93).

American Society of Addiction Medicine .

Linden, David J. The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning and Gambling Feel So Good. Viking: 2011.