Biz Geniuses and Drug Addicts Share Same Brain Error

By Kirk Maltais and Walter Armstrong 07/26/11

Society's winners and losers are stuck in the same pleasure-seeking Catch-22, says new addiction research.

It took more than an apple a day to fuel Steve Jobs' engine. Photo via

The addiction-book business is a lucrative but competitive one, even—perhaps especially—for serious researchers at prestigious universities with something original to report. Few stops on a writer’s new-book tour pay off like an op-ed in the Sunday New York Times, but you need a gimmick to score. David Linden, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University and the author of The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good, came up with a winner: His Times opinion piece on Sunday bore the title “Addictive Personality? You Might Be a Leader.” It argued that addicts, conventionally viewed as “weak-willed losers,” and business leaders, who are seen as society’s winners, have—according to cutting-edge addiction science—very similar psychological profiles: obsessive-compulsive, risk-taking, novelty-seeking.

Linden claims that addicts and leaders share a basic fault in the pleasure-reward region of their brains, blunting their experience of feel-good stimulation. As a result, “they must seek high levels of stimulation to reach the same level of pleasure that others can achieve with more moderate indulgence”—therefore they are uniquely vulnerable to addictions and compulsions. Of course, the fine line between Steve Jobs and the homeless crack addict on the corner is that Jobs’ drug of choice is success. But both share the dysfunctional hard-wiring to “want their pleasures more but like them less.” This pithy phrase will no doubt serve as Linden’s soundbite as he promotes his new book on radio and TV. But just in case he needs a backup angle, he has compiled a slew of famous figures—winners all—with substance abuse problems, from “the obvious creative types like Charles Baudelaire (hashish and opium) and Aldous Huxley (alcohol and the nonaddictive hallucinogens, mescaline and LSD), and scientists like Sigmund Freud (cocaine) to statesmen... such as Otto von Bismarck, the unifier of Germany, who typically drank two bottles of wine with lunch and topped them off with a little morphine in the evening." It's a fine line, indeed.

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