Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Compass of Pleasure by David J. Linden

  I think I got referred to this book by a link about online gaming addiction, but as it turned out, the section on gaming was very minimal. False Advertising!!

Despite that, the book was pretty interesting, for the most part, though a bit of a tough slog due to all of the new medical, biological and neurological terms that Linden apologizes for having to include. He's not nearly so adroit as the late Dr. Asimov when it comes to popularizing science.

Linden and others have spent countless hours trying to determine the neurological underpinnings of pleasure. Most of the work has been done with mice, whose biology and brain structure is eerily similar to humans. It would appear that most, if not all, of the things we experience as pleasure, such as eating, drinking, having sex, gambling, taking drugs, and even learning and giving, have some neurochemical basis in the brain, usually stimulating the production or reception of dopamine there, by some extraordinarily complex processes.

"Using a brain scanner, it has now become possible to observe activation of the brain's pleasure circuitry in humans. Not surprisingly, this circuit is activated by 'vice' stimuli: orgasm, sweet and fatty foods, monetary reward, and some psychoactive drugs. What's surprising is that many behaviors that we consider virtuous have similar effects. Voluntary exercise, certain forms of meditation or prayer, receiving social approval, and even donating to charity can all activate the human pleasure circuit."

This all looks like it might lead to some breakthroughs one day for treating addictions of all types, but some of the early attempts have not been too effective.

The nature vs. nurture debate remains alive and well.

"Yes, our genes and our neural circuits predispose us to certain behaviors, but our brains are malleable, and we can alter their neural circuits with experience."

Unfortunately for all of us science fiction fans, the possibility of scanning our entire brains with nanobots and being uploaded into a computer, thus achieving immortality, a la Ray Kurzweil is not going to be reached any time soon.

"Kurzweil's nanobots measure seven microns...the brain is composed of neurons and glial cells packed together so tightly that there's almost no room between them. What's more, the tiny spaces between them are filled not just with salt solution but with structural cables built of prteins and sugars, which have the important function of conveying signals to and from neighboring cells...Even if our intrepid nanobot were jet-powered and equipped with a powerful cutting laser, (Dr. Evil would love them) how would it move through the brain and not leave a trail of destruction in its wake?"

An interesting read, for all you techies out there.


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