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What a hellish condition. The addict desires something more, but gets less pleasure from it. And this leads to never being satisfied, always wanting more of this addiction that doesn’t even give pleasure anymore.


Hello Readers, hope all’s well. Time for another post.

Today’s post is something different. If you’re a longtime Reader of my blog, you know I love reading books. And that while I most often read Christian books, I make sure to insert some variety. The latest book I read, The Compass of Pleasure by David Linden, was something new for me. It was in a genre I don’t normally read (Psychology), and unlike any other book I’ve read so far. Good book.

As you may have guessed from the title, the book deals with the topic of pleasure. And pleasure can be addictive, as we all know. But the more I read, the more I grew disturbed at a brain phenomenon the book talks about. And that would be a hellish condition I can only call The Addict’s Curse. It’s a condition no one would ever want to be in, and yet countless people are. So read on, and learn more about the hellish reality of The Addict’s Curse.

How Does Pleasure “Work?”

This book is about brain chemistry and the science of the brain. Specifically, it deals with the brain science of pleasure—how pleasure “works” in the brain. Why do we find things pleasurable, what happens in our brain when we indulge in pleasure, and so on.

Although the back cover says the book makes this science easy to understand … well … the book is still pretty tough to understand in parts. The brain and how it works is insanely complex. Linden tries to make it clearer, but doesn’t always succeed. But that’s alright. I understood the important parts, and learned about pleasure and the brain. And this book really got me thinking about some things.

I won’t explain all the brain chemistry of pleasure this book talks about. But I will mention one fundamental part that is key to how humans experience all kinds of pleasure. Pleasure is (more or less) regulated by a small region of the brain called the medial forebrain pleasure circuit (MFPC, from now on). When we experience something pleasurable, a part of this MFPC releases the neurotransmitter dopamine into other regions of the brain. This dopamine is what gives us the good feelings, the pleasure.

So to sum that up in a few words … (basically) whatever activates the MFPC in the brain leads to dopamine being released and is felt and remembered as a pleasurable experience.
But anything that is pleasurable … can be addictive

As the book goes on, it describes how our brains can get addicted to (pretty much) any pleasurable experience. The book explains the physical changes that happen inside the brain when we get addicted. These physical changes in the brain seem to be what underlie dangerous aspects of addiction like tolerance (needing more and more of the same pleasure to feel the desired effect), craving, and withdrawal (getting sick [etc.] from not having the addictive pleasure).

Addiction is a major topic in The Compass of Pleasure. The book explores the question of why some pleasures are more easily and severely addictive than others. But since (pretty much) any pleasure activates the MFPC and releases dopamine, any pleasure can be addictive.

That alone should impress the value of the Virtue of Temperance on us. But wait—it gets even worse.

As the book continues to talk about addiction, a horrible affliction, a curse comes into view. The Addict’s Curse.

The Addict’s Curse

Of course Linden never uses the phrase The Addict’s Curse for this concept. I came up with the name, because I couldn’t think of any other way to describe this phenomenon. So what is it? Well, it’s first mentioned right in the intro, though again Linden doesn’t describe it as a curse.

Do you, like many, think that drug addicts become drug addicts because they derive greater reward from getting high than others? The biology says no: They actually seem to want it more but like it less.

David J. Linden, The Compass of Pleasure (2011), Page 5

Addicts want it more, but like it less.

What a hellish condition. The addict desires something more, but gets less pleasure from it. And this leads to never being satisfied, always wanting more of this addiction that doesn’t even give pleasure anymore.

What else can we call this condition but cursed? Always wanting, even needing more of something even though we don’t enjoy it anymore. And feeling sick or anxious if we can’t get it.

The Compass of Pleasure gives some great examples of The Addict’s Curse that do a great job of showing what it is. Here’s one about obesity (and by extension, possible food addiction):

A recent study by Eric Stice and coworkers at the University of Oregon placed obese and lean subjects, all young women, in a brain scanner while giving them sips of chocolate milkshake through a plastic tube. […] obese subjects showed significantly less activation of the [MFPC part] in response to milkshake sips than did the lean subjects, supporting the blunted pleasure hypothesis.
“If you look at the brain response when people are about to get the milkshake, obese individuals show greater activation of the reward circuitry, not less,” Stice observes. “So ironically, they expect more reward but seem to experience less.” It’s a cruel double-edged sword: increased craving coupled with decreased pleasure. In fact, this pattern may be a general problem for many forms of compulsive and addictive behavior, not just overeating.

David J. Linden, The Compass of Pleasure (2011), Pages 81-82

The “blunted pleasure hypothesis” they’re talking about is the idea that addicts have weaker dopamine levels and something wrong with their pleasure system, so they seek out more pleasures to try and stay at normal levels of dopamine that others can maintain easier.

The horrible and tragic thing about seeking more pleasure to maintain normal levels of dopamine is that indulging in more pleasure numbs us to pleasure. We get used to it, develop a tolerance to it, and need more and more pleasure to feel the same good feelings we did at first. An example with lab rats showed this:

They began by allowing a group of rats near-constant access to both standard lab chow pellets and an energy-dense “cafeteria diet” including bacon, chocolate, sausage, cheesecake, and frosting. Forty days later […] it appeared as if many days of the cafeteria diet left the reward circuit partially numbed, an effect that is also seen with chronic cocaine or heroin treatment in both rats and humans.

David J. Linden, The Compass of Pleasure (2011), Page 92

So indulging in more pleasure makes us numbed and insensitive to pleasure. What a tragic situation, because so many people are trapped in an endless cycle of seeking more and more pleasure … but they’re never satisfied, and never find happiness.

Let’s move on. Remember we can get addicted to (almost) any experience that activates the MFPC. Sex is a pleasure that definitely activates the MFPC—it’s very pleasurable. So people can get addicted to sex too, and suffer the same Addict’s Curse with it.

Sex addiction is very real, and it takes a terrible toll. Sex addicts have the same trajectory as other addicts. They develop the same tolerance to the behavior, whereby more and more sex is necessary for achieving pleasure. […] The sex that used to be a transcendent and energizing pleasure is now simply a necessary fix to face the day.

David J. Linden, The Compass of Pleasure (2011), Page 118

Last, let’s take a look at what the book says about gambling addiction, a terrible addiction that has destroyed countless lives. Yes, The Addict’s Curse is seen here too. Gambling addicts want to gamble more, but get less pleasure from gambling and even from winning.

Figure 5.4 Gambling addiction is associated with reduced activation of the [MFPC]. Top: Brain scan images showing reduced activation of the [MFPC part] on winning trials in gambling addicts. […] subjects with the most severe gambling addiction tended to have the greater reductions of the pleasure circuit in winning trials.

David J. Linden, The Compass of Pleasure (2011), Page 145

So … once we get addicted to something, we fall victim to The Addict’s Curse. Instead of liking a pleasure we want it and need it just to feel normal. But the truth is, we no longer enjoy it. What a tragedy.

But how can we avoid this situation? It’s got to be something more than “just say no to drugs, kids” because we know that any pleasure can become addictive. We all need to eat to survive, so what do we do if we have a food addiction?? It’s questions like these that got me thinking about God’s Design for humanity, the world, and the value of the Virtue of Temperance.

God Created Pleasure, and the MFPC too

I don’t know God’s Design for humanity and the world, and I could never comprehend it. But God did give me a brain capable of wondering and asking questions, so I’m as free and capable as anyone else of wondering about what God could have intended.

God created this world, and He created humans. Since He created humans, He also created this medial forebrain pleasure circuit (MFPC) that’s key to our enjoyment of pleasure. But pleasures can also be addictive and destructive in our lives. So what was God’s intention for pleasure, here on this world?

God created humans in His image, which tells us God takes pleasure in things (because we do too). So God wanted us to feel pleasure like He can, except our human bodies can only experience it to a much lesser extent.

This means the pleasures of this world, from food to sex to a nice cup of coffee, are gifts from God. We should be thankful for each one, and praise God for having them. After all, the alternative is living in a world without these pleasures, and that would be much worse than our current situation of a world with addictive pleasures.

And beyond that, pleasure serves a real purpose in our lives too. As The Compass of Pleasure says, what if eating food was horribly painful? Then not enough of our ancestors would have eaten as much as they needed to survive intermittent famines (which afflicted every human culture around the world). What if having sex was horribly painful? Then not enough of our ancestors would have reproduced, and humanity would have died out at some point. And so on and so forth. Certain activities dealing with our survival must be pleasurable, or we wouldn’t do them.

And once again, since God created our brains, God created the MFPC inside our brains, which is what allows us to experience pleasure at all. The MFPC is a gift from God too. He intended that we should experience and enjoy pleasure in this world.

And the pleasures of this world do indeed have great value to us. Each one of them adds to life in their own way, creating a more bright and vibrant, enjoyable experience. They can create some bright spots in the gloom, or they can make the good times even better. Pleasure is a beautiful gift, one we must be grateful to God for.

But the same organ which allows us to enjoy pleasure is the same one that allows us to become addicted to it. And since (almost) all the pleasures of this world activate the MFPC, we can get addicted to pretty much any good thing in this world. Sex and food and entertainment may be gifts from God to be enjoyed in their proper God-ordained context, but it’s not God’s Will that any of these things should rule our life and control us.

Our life must revolve around God, not around any of the pleasures of this world which He created. Both addiction and a life of pleasure-seeking are not God’s Will for us.

So what’s the answer here? What’s the right way for us to handle pleasure in this world??

The answer is: The Virtue of Temperance.

Control Yourself or Be Controlled

Perhaps you’ve read my Victory in Virtue series here on this blog. I recently wrapped it up for now at twenty-five posts. In that series I wrote about the main Virtues we must strive for as Christians, and the vices we must avoid. One of the Virtues I wrote about was the Virtue of Temperance, and if today’s post has interested you I suggest you go check that out too.

The Virtue of Temperance is vital for living as a Christian in this world full of seductive temptations. Although I’ve already said how pleasure is a gift from God—because He designed us to be able to enjoy it, and also designed our brains with the MFPCpleasure is a trap too.

Pleasure is a trap because it can lead to addiction if we don’t moderate it (if we don’t use Temperance). If we become addicted, our pleasure controls us rather than the other way around. This goes against God’s Will because He gave us a Spirit of Self-Control (2 Tim. 1:7). If we don’t moderate pleasure, our lives revolve around pleasure rather than God. This is also against God’s Will.
Last, indulging too much in the world’s pleasures attaches us to this temporary world, which is dying. We become less Spiritual and more materialistic. More world-oriented and less God-oriented.

Addiction, being controlled by pleasure rather than having Self-Control, and seeking pleasure instead of God. Each one of these errors is Spiritually fatal if allowed to continue. That’s why pleasure is indeed a trap. And Satan uses it to try and doom as many believers as he can, making them attached to the world and its pleasures while pulling them away from God.

It’s that last point that’s probably the worst. This is something 1 John 2:15-17 warns us about. This world is temporary, it’s passing away. We don’t want to get attached to this world—we want to seek God and get closer to Him. Because God is forever.

(15) Don’t love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in them. (16) Everything that is in the world—the craving for whatever the body feels, the craving for whatever the eyes see and the arrogant pride in one’s possessions—is not of the Father but is of the world. (17) And the world and its cravings are passing away, but the person who does the will of God remains forever.

1 John 2:15-17 (CEB)

So we need to be careful not to love worldly pleasure, as it’s all temporary. We don’t want to die with this world, we want to live forever with Jesus, and that’s what we need to stay focused on.

We can enjoy pleasure here on earth without sinning, because God designed us to enjoy it. He built our brains with the MFPC inside. But we must remember the short-lived enjoyment we get from the pleasures of this world can never hope to compare with the eternal pleasures we can enjoy in Heaven, with the LORD.

And that’s why we need the Virtue of Temperance. We must moderate our use of worldly pleasures, remembering to keep our hearts and mind focused on the things of Heaven and not of earth (Colossians 3:2).

The Compass of Pleasure was a very interesting book. Besides learning about brain chemistry and science, it really got me thinking, like I said.

God designed this world, and God designed humans. He designed our brains with this MFPC inside. So pleasure must be part of God’s design—He wants us to enjoy it as His gift to us. When we enjoy the pleasures of the world, we must do it in gratitude and praise God for these gifts.

But God also gave us a Spirit of Self-Control (2 Timothy 1:7). He wants us to control ourselves; it’s not His Will that anything else should control us. Addiction is not His Will for our lives, and neither is a life of constant pleasure-seeking.

If nothing else, never forget about The Addict’s Curse. Who wants to live a life of always wanting and needing something that we don’t even enjoy anymore?? If we don’t control pleasure, it will control us. And that’s never pleasant.


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Until next time, be strong and do good!

Your new best friend in Christ,

99:9

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