Part 1: The Hardware (or Biology)
A day or two after I posted my article on the madness of speed in the modern culture, I read an entry on Frontal Cortex that shed some more neurological light on our pathological condition. I wrote a little about this in my earlier article, but this hopefully provides a more complete picture. I was indulging in speculation then, but it looks like I wasn’t that far off.
Back in 1954, a psychologist at McGill University in Canada, James Olds, and his team accidentally discovered that if a probe is inserted into the lateral hypothalamus of a rat and the rat was allowed to stimulate its own probe, the rat would stimulate itself till it collapsed. This was hailed as the discovery of the brain’s pleasure center. But neuroscientists were unhappy with this term. They found that far from producing pleasure, people who were stimulated in this area were more crazed than happy. Two researchers, Jaak Panskepp and Kent Berridge, independently concluded that this area was more concerned with seeking or searching than pleasure. Berridge concludes that mammals have two separate systems, one for seeking and the other for liking, which is the brain’s real pleasure center. Emily Yoffe, the author of the Slate article that inspired the entry on Frontal Cortex, writes:
“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.”
Dopamine, the well known neurotransmitter associated with the euphoric feeling and consistently tagged as being the reward drug, apparently has more effect in motivating us than in satisfying us. Rats that had their dopamine producing neurons destroyed, starved to death even when the food was right in front of them because they had lost the desire to reach for it. Berridge says that dopamine does not have satiety built into it. Rats who had dopamine flood their brains were quicker in navigating a maze to reach food than ordinary rats, but they were not any more satisfied than the ordinary rats once they found the food. Dopamine is also thought to be responsible for maintaining an internal sense of time. So, when an hour has gone by whilst surfing the web, you have dopamine to thank again. The neurotransmitter not only drives the seeking system in our brains, it also makes us lose time as we constantly stimulate ourselves following one hyperlink after the next. Novelty fuels dopamine and the next email has all the potential of being novel (it just might be the response from that gorgeous girl from the cafe agreeing to meet for dinner). Berridge says that like Pavlov’s dogs, we salivate at the ding announcing new mail.
Jonah Lehrer adds an interesting twist to this. This endless desire for curiosity doesn’t make us want to read Feynman’s Lectures on Physics or learn a new language or a skill. He says: “..we don’t treat all information equally. My salient fact is your irrelevant bit; your necessary detail is my triviality. Here’s the paradox of curiosity: I only want to know more about that which I already know about.” So, there we have it, a neurological explanation for why we develop a tic if we’re unplugged even for an instant.
Part 2: Software (or Culture)
Driving back from the library yesterday, I heard a brief segment from a program called “The Cambridge Forum” on NPR. The speaker was Carl Honore, a leading evangelist of the so called “Slow Movement”. He said something that I thought provided the cultural impetus for our behavior. Western culture (and thereby much of modern culture just about everywhere) has always thought of time as linear, of a line moving towards progress and betterment. Economics is a fundamental bedrock of modern culture. Everything we do, the way we want to be, who we want to be, is driven in part by a model of wanting more, of the philosophy that as homo economicus ‘more is better, greed is good’ (as quoted memorably by Gordon Gekko, the Michael Douglas character in the movie Wall Street). With time being also a scarce quantity (limited by our lifetime), and the desire to make progress, we squeeze more and more into a given unit of time.
Carl Honore writes in his blog: Of course, being online can be wonderful. We are hardwired to be curious and to connect and communicate. The problem is that in a world of limitless information and constant access to other people, we often don’t know when to stop. Being “always on” is exhausting and superficial. It erodes our producitivity. It locks us into what one Microsoft research called a state of “continuous partial attention.”
“…is unplugging now the ultimate luxury?
Of course, being online can be wonderful. We are hardwired to be curious and to connect and communicate. The problem is that in a world of limitless information and constant access to other people, we often don’t know when to stop.
Being “always on” is exhausting and superficial. It erodes our producitivity. It locks us into what one Microsoft research called a state of “continuous partial attention.”
Continuous partial attention. I found that a very apt description of how I find my state of mind, many times. The days I throw caution to the wind and just be completely with Maya, I feel invigorated. Her sense of wonder, her endless fascination with what we dismiss as ordinary, her complete lack of urgency (except when she’s hungry) and purposelessness make it much more refreshing if I don’t let trivia (sometimes work is trivia too) put me in a constant state of partial attention.
I ran into the slow movement via a book about Slow Food, the activity that unleashed the slow movement. I had nodded off reading the book (or so I remember) and didn’t pay any further attention to it. By visiting Carl Honore’s site and other sites associated with the Slow Movement, I see interesting insights and practices that maybe of benefit in helping fix this drug, the accelerating, unyielding desire for more.
“There is more to life than merely increasing its speed” – Mahatma Gandhi