Edward Willett

The thrill of the chase

[podcast]http://edwardwillett.com/wp-content/upLoads//2009/09/The-Thrill-of-the-Chase.mp3[/podcast]

I had a hard time getting started on this column. See, as I was calling up the items I’d starred in Google Reader as possible topics, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to do a quick search for new reviews of my latest novel. And then I thought, well, as long as I’m online, maybe I’ll just skim through some blogs…and maybe check Facebook…and…

Well, you get the idea. Fact is, you’re lucky to be getting this column at all.

Which is ironic, because my jumping-off point is an article from Slate, written by Emily Yoffe, titled “Seeking: How the brain hard-wires us to love Google, Twitter, and texting. And why that’s dangerous.”

There’s no doubt that the seeking out of information online is an addictive pastime. I’ve more than once sat up way past bedtime pursuing essentially useless bits of knowledge through the information labyrinth (remember when they used to call it a highway?)…and regretted it when the alarm rang the next morning.

Blame my brain.

Washington State University neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, writes Yoffe in Slate, says this is an example of “seeking,” what he calls “the granddaddy” of the emotional systems hard-wired into all mammalian brains.

“What’s my motivation?” Method actors stereotypically demand of directors. For mammals, Panksepp believes, it’s seeking, which is so strongly innate that animals in captivity prefer to search for their food rather than have it delivered to them.

But unlike most animals, humans seek out not just concrete physical rewards, but abstract mental rewards such as new ideas and connections.

At the heart of this system is the neurotransmitter dopamine, which, Panksepp says, promotes “states of eagerness and directed purpose,” states that feel so good to us we want as much of them as we can get…and sometimes turn to cocaine, amphetamines and other drugs to stimulate them.

When I burn away an hour at the computer without meaning to, then, it’s not my fault, it’s dopamine’s (the stuff also controls our internal sense of time).

At the University of Michigan, psychology professor Kent Berridge and co-researchers use the term “wanting,” instead of seeking, companion to another system they call “liking.”

Berridge says that whereas “wanting” is driven by dopamine, “liking” is driven by our opioid system, providing a feeling of fulfillment and contentment and temporarily removing the desire to seek. Eat a big meal, and the thought of even a dinner mint no longer appeals.

But, notes Berridge, our brains are “more stingy with mechanisms for pleasure than for desire,” so that we spend much more time in the “wanting” mode than in the “liking” mode.

Evolutionarily speaking, that’s important (which is why it’s so). If we did not want and seek, we would be like the rats whose dopamine neurons have been destroyed: they’ll starve to death in a cage full of food because they’ve lost the desire to go get it.

But if these systems get out of whack, we end up in trouble. Berridge believes addiction results when the wanting, rather than the liking, takes precedence, so that addicts are driven to continually seek out the whatever-it-is-they’re-addicted-to, even though the pleasure of actually having that thing becomes progressively less rewarding.

Which brings us back to Google, Twitter, “push” emails (thanks, Blackberry!), etc., etc. We’re addicted to the search for novelty, victims of our dopamine-drugged brains.

The dopamine system, Yoffe notes, can be activated by cues that a reward is coming. When your computer dings to tell you you’ve got mail, or your phone buzzes on your belt, it’s triggering your brain to expect a reward, just like Pavlov’s famous ringing bell triggered the brains of conditioned dogs to salivate on cue.

Trouble is, when we respond, we only receive a tiny bit of information—an email, a text message, a Tweet—which is not enough to satisfy. We’re like rats who, given just a little bit of sugar, end up in a state of “panting appetite,” searching frantically for more.

Yoffe quotes Temple Grandin, author of the book Animals in Translation, who writes of driving cats crazy by flicking an uncatchable point of laser light around a room. They’ll chase it for hours, she notes; and yet, if they were in the wild, this kind of “mindless chasing” could prove fatal, “because it short-circuits intelligent stalking behavior.”

Hmm. Sounds like an interesting book. Think I’ll Google it.

Be right back…

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