Continuing the theme of ‘learning addiction’ I have been developing (1, 2, 3, 4), it is interesting to see medical science furthering our understanding of why our brains are wired for that (Seeking: How the brain hard-wires us to love Google, Twitter, and texting. And why that’s dangerous). I guess it should be no surprise that it is essentially a survival instinct called ‘seeking’. Accidentally discovered in 1954, the seeking stimulus is triggered by learning, and even more so by learning unexpected things (aka discovery?). Interestingly, the seeking stimulus is not a pleasure like sex or eating chocolate, but rather a kind of excitement that triggers the release of dopamine and the desire to do more seeking. It is no wonder then that when the barrier to successful seeking becomes lower (e.g. Google, Twitter, and texting), people can get stuck in an addictive feedback loop.
How the brain hard-wires us to love Google, Twitter, and texting. And why that’s dangerous. Basic drives for food, sex, and sleep have been overridden by a new need for endless nuggets of electronic information. 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. They at first thought they had found the pleasure center but this supposed pleasure center didn’t look very much like it was producing pleasure. 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. 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. Our internal sense of time is believed to be controlled by the dopamine system. 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.”
Reddit also has some interesting (and some hilarious) comments.
In some ways this makes it even more astonishing that many children can have the love of learning beaten out of them at school. In some cases it is displaced by more stimulating activities (e.g. talking, texting), but in many cases it only leaves boredom and apathy. On a more positive note, at least it helps provide scientific evidence of the benefit of allowing “self directed learning”, as is encouraged in some schools like Discovery 1 (1, 2).