August 14, 2009 at 5:23 am #32046
Note: a piece with very profound implications for spiritual seekers as well as for our “outer habits of seeking” in the world via internet. The inner seeking (brain’s opiod release or satiety feeling that leads to stillness or pause) may be designed to balance out the outer seeking (dopamine release that excites). Spiritual seeking plays this out multi-dimensionally, alchemy may just be a way to balance it all out, i.e. have your cake (stillness) and eat it too (excitement). Love to hear comments on this. -Michael
HOW THE BRAIN HARD-WIRES US TO LOVE GOOGLE, TWITTER, AND TEXTING
AND WHY THAT’S DANGEROUS
By Emily Yoffe
August 12, 2009
Seeking. You can’t stop doing it. Sometimes it feels as if the basic drives
for food, sex, and sleep have been overridden by a new need for endless
nuggets of electronic information. We are so insatiably curious that we
gather data even if it gets us in trouble. Google searches are becoming a
cause of mistrials as jurors, after hearing testimony, ignore judges’
instructions and go look up facts for themselves. We search for information
we don’t even care about. Nina Shen Rastogi confessed in Double X, “My
boyfriend has threatened to break up with me if I keep whipping out my
iPhone to look up random facts about celebrities when we’re out to dinner.”
We reach the point that we wonder about our sanity. Virginia Heffernan in
the New York Times said she became so obsessed with Twitter posts about the
Henry Louis Gates Jr. arrest that she spent days “refreshing my search like
a drugged monkey.”
We actually resemble nothing so much as those legendary lab rats that
endlessly pressed a lever to give themselves a little electrical jolt to the
brain. While we tap, tap away at our search engines, it appears we are
stimulating the same system in our brains that scientists accidentally
discovered more than 50 years ago when probing rat skulls.
In 1954, psychologist James Olds and his team were working in a laboratory
at McGill University, studying how rats learned. They would stick an
electrode in a rat’s brain and, whenever the rat went to a particular corner
of its cage, would give it a small shock and note the reaction. One day they
unknowingly inserted the probe in the wrong place, and when Olds tested the
rat, it kept returning over and over to the corner where it received the
shock. He eventually discovered that if the probe was put in the brain’s
lateral hypothalamus and the rats were allowed to press a lever and
stimulate their own electrodes, they would press until they collapsed.
Olds, and everyone else, assumed he’d found the brain’s pleasure center
(some scientists still think so). Later experiments done on humans confirmed
that people will neglect almost everything — their personal hygiene, their
family commitments — in order to keep getting that buzz.
But to Washington State University neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, this
supposed pleasure center didn’t look very much like it was producing
pleasure. Those self-stimulating rats, and later those humans, did not
exhibit the euphoric satisfaction of creatures eating Double Stuf Oreos or
repeatedly having orgasms. The animals, he writes in Affective Neuroscience:
The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions, were “excessively excited,
even crazed.” The rats were in a constant state of sniffing and foraging.
Some of the human subjects described feeling sexually aroused but didn’t
experience climax. Mammals stimulating the lateral hypothalamus seem to be
caught in a loop, Panksepp writes, “where each stimulation evoked a
reinvigorated search strategy” (and Panksepp wasn’t referring to Bing).
It is an emotional state Panksepp tried many names for: curiosity, interest,
foraging, anticipation, craving, expectancy. He finally settled on seeking.
Panksepp has spent decades mapping the emotional systems of the brain he
believes are shared by all mammals, and he says, “Seeking is the granddaddy
of the systems.” It is the mammalian motivational engine that each day gets
us out of the bed, or den, or hole to venture forth into the world. It’s
why, as animal scientist Temple Grandin writes in Animals Make Us Human,
experiments show that animals in captivity would prefer to have to search
for their food than to have it delivered to them.
For humans, this desire to search is not just about fulfilling our physical
needs. Panksepp says that humans can get just as excited about abstract
rewards as tangible ones. He says that when we get thrilled about the world
of ideas, about making intellectual connections, about divining meaning, it
is the seeking circuits that are firing.
The juice that fuels the seeking system is the neurotransmitter dopamine.
The dopamine circuits “promote states of eagerness and directed purpose,”
Panksepp writes. It’s a state humans love to be in. So good does it feel
that we seek out activities, or substances, that keep this system aroused —
cocaine and amphetamines, drugs of stimulation, are particularly effective
at stirring it.
Ever find yourself sitting down at the computer just for a second to find
out what other movie you saw that actress in, only to look up and realize
the search has led to an hour of Googling? Thank dopamine. Our internal
sense of time is believed to be controlled by the dopamine system. People
with hyperactivity disorder have a shortage of dopamine in their brains,
which a recent study suggests may be at the root of the problem. For them
even small stretches of time seem to drag. An article by Nicholas Carr in
the Atlantic last year, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” speculates that our
constant Internet scrolling is remodeling our brains to make it nearly
impossible for us to give sustained attention to a long piece of writing.
Like the lab rats, we keep hitting “enter” to get our next fix.
University of Michigan professor of psychology Kent Berridge has spent more
than two decades figuring out how the brain experiences pleasure. Like
Panksepp, he, too, has come to the conclusion that what James Olds’ rats
were stimulating was not their reward center. In a series of experiments, he
and other researchers have been able to tease apart that the mammalian brain
has separate systems for what Berridge calls wanting and liking.
Wanting is Berridge’s equivalent for Panksepp’s seeking system. It is the
liking system that Berridge believes is the brain’s reward center. When we
experience pleasure, it is our own opioid system, rather than our dopamine
system, that is being stimulated. This is why the opiate drugs induce a kind
of blissful stupor so different from the animating effect of cocaine and
amphetamines. Wanting and liking are complementary. The former catalyzes us
to action; the latter brings us to a satisfied pause. Seeking needs to be
turned off, if even for a little while, so that the system does not run in
an endless loop. When we get the object of our desire (be it a Twinkie or a
sexual partner), we engage in consummatory acts that Panksepp says reduce
arousal in the brain and temporarily, at least, inhibit our urge to seek.
But our brains are designed to more easily be stimulated than satisfied.
“The brain seems to be more stingy with mechanisms for pleasure than for
desire,” Berridge has said. This makes evolutionary sense. Creatures that
lack motivation, that find it easy to slip into oblivious rapture, are
likely to lead short (if happy) lives. So nature imbued us with an
unquenchable drive to discover, to explore. Stanford University
neuroscientist Brian Knutson has been putting people in MRI scanners and
looking inside their brains as they play an investing game. He has
consistently found that the pictures inside our skulls show that the
possibility of a payoff is much more stimulating than actually getting one.
Just how powerful (and separate) wanting is from liking is illustrated in
animal experiments. Berridge writes that studies have shown that rats whose
dopamine neurons have been destroyed retain the ability to walk, chew, and
swallow but will starve to death even if food is right under their noses
because they have lost the will to go get it. Conversely, Berridge
discovered that rats with a mutation that floods their brains with dopamine
learned more quickly than normal rats how to negotiate a runway to reach the
food. But once they got it, they didn’t find the food more pleasurable than
the nonenhanced rats. (No, the rats didn’t provide a Zagat rating;
scientists measure rats’ facial reactions to food.)
That study has implications for drug addiction and other compulsive
behaviors. Berridge has proposed that in some addictions the brain becomes
sensitized to the wanting cycle of a particular reward. So addicts become
obsessively driven to seek the reward, even as the reward itself becomes
progressively less rewarding once obtained. “The dopamine system does not
have satiety built into it,” Berridge explains. “And under certain
conditions it can lead us to irrational wants, excessive wants we’d be
better off without.” So we find ourselves letting one Google search lead to
another, while often feeling the information is not vital and knowing we
should stop. “As long as you sit there, the consumption renews the
appetite,” he explains.
Actually all our electronic communication devices — e-mail, Facebook feeds,
texts, Twitter — are feeding the same drive as our searches. Since we’re
restless, easily bored creatures, our gadgets give us in abundance qualities
the seeking/wanting system finds particularly exciting. Novelty is one.
Panksepp says the dopamine system is activated by finding something
unexpected or by the anticipation of something new. If the rewards come
unpredictably — as e-mail, texts, updates do — we get even more carried
away. No wonder we call it a “CrackBerry.”
The system is also activated by particular types of cues that a reward is
coming. In order to have the maximum effect, the cues should be small,
discrete, specific — like the bell Pavlov rang for his dogs. Panksepp says
a way to drive animals into a frenzy is to give them only tiny bits of food:
This simultaneously stimulating and unsatisfying tease sends the seeking
system into hyperactivity. Berridge says the “ding” announcing a new e-mail
or the vibration that signals the arrival of a text message serves as a
reward cue for us. And when we respond, we get a little piece of news
(Twitter, anyone?), making us want more. These information nuggets may be as
uniquely potent for humans as a Froot Loop to a rat. When you give a rat a
minuscule dose of sugar, it engenders “a panting appetite,” Berridge says —
a powerful and not necessarily pleasant state.
If humans are seeking machines, we’ve now created the perfect machines to
allow us to seek endlessly. This perhaps should make us cautious. In Animals
in Translation, Temple Grandin writes of driving two indoor cats crazy by
flicking a laser pointer around the room. They wouldn’t stop stalking and
pouncing on this ungraspable dot of light — their dopamine system pumping.
She writes that no wild cat would indulge in such useless behavior: “A cat
wants to catch the mouse, not chase it in circles forever.” She says
“mindless chasing” makes an animal less likely to meet its real needs
“because it short-circuits intelligent stalking behavior.” As we chase after
flickering bits of information, it’s a salutary warning.
Emily Yoffe is the author of What the Dog Did: Tales From a Formerly
Reluctant Dog Owner. You can send your Human Guinea Pig suggestions or
comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.August 16, 2009 at 1:24 am #32047
Keep it up dude. It only gets more interesting at the kan li level….
mAugust 16, 2009 at 3:30 am #32049
I can speak a little about texting addiction.
I see this kind of behavior first-hand.
Starting about two years ago, undergraduate classrooms
at MSU have been infected with addicted students who
literally can not go 50 minutes without texting.
Moreover, some of them get quite uncomfortable
with the idea of not being able to maintain their
texting on a CONTINUOUS basis. It’s not simply
a matter of having a diversion from a boring class
(although there are some of those people); but for
a good number of students, texting is so hardwired
into their brains that the idea of not spending
waking minutes strapped to their texting device is
inconceivable. I’ve seen symptoms akin to heroin
withdrawal when someone is “forced” to turn off
their texting device. Then the student will
relieve their withdrawal symptoms by getting up
periodically to take “bathroom breaks”. It’s quite
StevenDecember 9, 2009 at 11:33 am #32051
I am tempted to view this article in such a way to apply it to “seeking enlightenment”. That kind of seeking of the self is an addiction to wanting something else other than what is right now (resistance) and must have similar elements that are pointed out in the article. We seek and do some practice and get an experience (high) and then come down and seek some more because of the mechanisms of seeking. When experiences are states that come and go and are not directly being whole – which is what is being seeked – being whole. But one can never be whole while looking for wholeness.
You must be logged in to reply to this topic.