Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Lab Rats that can Create their own Brain Stimulation Levers

For some weird reason, I think I was dreaming about lab rats pressing on levers to electrically stimulate their brains' pleasure centres, so while lazily rolling in bed before I got up today, I was thinking that's how humans are basically behaving as our world gets more and more technologically complex.

With insights from science allowing us to reduce huge, complicated and dynamic systems into their simple causes and effects, we're able to know what causes what to a very accurate degree. We know what drives us at the deepest level. We're not that different from animals. From the studies of laboratory animals with electric nodes wired up to the pleasure centres in their brains, it was found that the electrical stimulus was reinforcing and can override behaviour. Laboratory animals will press a lever at high rates (> 6,000 times per hour) to deliver brief stimulation pulses to brain regions. The reinforcement from direct electrical activation of this reward substrate is more potent than other rewards, such as food or water. The potency of this electrical stimulation was most dramatically shown in a classic experiment where the animal subjects suffered self-imposed starvation when forced to make a choice between obtaining food and water or electrical brain stimulation (Routtenberg & Lindy, 1965). The second distinct feature of reward from electrical brain stimulation is the lack of satiation; animals generally press to stimulate continuously, taking only brief breaks. These two features - super-potent reward and lack of satiation - are important characteristics of direct activation of brain reward mechanisms.

Unfortunately in this sense, I suppose, science and technology co-exist and advance each other accordingly. Every new item on the market is sold to reproduce that kick from activating our brain reward mechanisms and promises, in fancy marketing language, to give us enhanced kicks. These include nifty new gadgets and websites promising entertainment that suck us into hours of unproductive, addictive fun. But this is not limited to technological products - the market reflects peoples' demand for novel and better ways to activate their brain reward mechanisms (obviously), and with that we see flashier cars, harder drinks, trendier clothes, swankier clubs, bigger brands, super-sweet foods, etc. These things do not satiate us, and they replace our otherwise normal behaviours.

Whatever is "better", on average, ultimately boils down to what activates those brain reward mechanisms more and faster, and people are willing to pay good money for it. An immediate distinction between now and the past is that, with our advances in ideas and technology, we're getting more and more capable of delivering those quick-reward ends compared to other periods in our history. We've become laboratory rats who are capable of creating our own fancy brain stimulation levers, and we're psychotically pressing them. In contrast, a caveman was capable of only activating his pleasure centres by doing the menial but traditionally sound things that led to good feelings - seeking friendships, taking care of relatives, falling in love, communicating with others, finding food to eat, etc. These days, who needs such longwinded activities? They take too long before they lead us to the promised land.

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