Neuroscientist David Linden divides his time between a lab full of mice and post-doctoral students at the Johns Hopkins medical campus and a writing desk in his secret hideaway of a house, located on a wooded lane in a secluded part of North Baltimore. From there, he has produced three hugely successful books about the brain: “The Accidental Mind,” “The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good” and new this month, “Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart and Mind.”
Featured on Fresh Air, in the Wall Street Journal, in Playboy and elsewhere, Touch explores our capacity for sensation in areas ranging from sex to pain to chili peppers, and features Linden’s signature combination of personal storytelling, humor and amazing things you didn’t know about the brain, lucidly explained and illustrated. With his works translated into seventeen languages, this Baltimorean puts the popular in popular science. He found time between speaking engagements and rodent brain experiments to answer a few questions for the Baltimore Fishbowl.
Tell us a bit about your background and training as a neuroscientist. How did you choose your specialty?
I grew up in the 1970s when Jacques Cousteau was on TV. Like many other kids in my California beach town, I thought I wanted to be a marine biologist and zoom around the tropics on a dive boat speaking French. But there was another strand of influence: my father was a psychoanalyst and, as early as I can remember, we would regularly discuss his cases. “Let me tell you about this dream that my narcissist secret-cross-dresser had last night,” was standard dinnertime conversation.
I could tell that talk-therapy was useful to my father’s clients but I wanted to know the underlying mechanisms of the mental processes he probed, and so neuroscience also beckoned. In the middle of college, I still couldn’t decide which major to declare: marine biology or neurobiology so I dropped out for a while and went to work as a marine biologist. That convinced me that I really belonged in the lab.
It wasn’t just the cold California seawater and inhaling the diesel fumes of the research ship that did it. It was the realization that studying the marine environment was too unconstrained a problem for a control freak like me. I needed to be in the lab where I could poke and prod things precisely. So, I returned to college at Berkeley, declared a major in neurobiology and I’ve been on that path ever since.
What do you love most about your work?
There are very few jobs where you can completely follow your own curiosity about the world, but being an academic scientist is one of them. I also love writing books but it’s a very inward-turning, solitary pursuit. By contrast, doing science in a lab is an intensely social endeavor. I spent all day yakking with smart and interesting people- my students, postdocs, collaborators and colleagues- and they provide the energy that keeps me excited about work.
What do you think are the most important insights of neuroscience from a pursuit-of-happiness point of view?
If there’s one crucial insight, it’s this: it feels like we’re driving the bus, but we’re not. All of us are subject to strong subconscious drives, emotions and motivations. And we can’t trust our senses: they’re not built to give us the most accurate representation of the external world. Rather, they’re cherry-picking information, blending it with expectation, evolutionary history and personal history, throwing in a huge dose of emotion and serving the whole mess up as real. The bottom line: it’s easy to screw up. Forgive yourself and forgive others.
What is the thing you have done you are proudest of?
While I’m proud of the scientific work that my lab has done on the molecular basis of memory storage, I’m probably most proud of my books about brain function that are written for a general audience. When people come up and tell me that The Accidental Mind made them become a neruoscientist or that The Compass of Pleasure helped them understand their struggle with addiction, that’s satisfying in a very direct and human way.
What is your biggest dream or goal you haven’t reached yet?
In my dreams, I have Paul Lynde’s seat on The Hollywood Squares.
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