Search is the drug

Paul Raven @ 08-09-2009

searching for fulfillmentDo you find yourself compulsively searching for things on the internet even when you don’t really need to know them? Do you get caught in the infamous Wikipedia rabbithole, popping over there to look up a musician’s name only to find yourself two hours later scrolling through a lengthy treatise on the socio-political history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire?

I know I do… and Professor Kent Berridge reckons he knows why. Apparently the parts of our brain that are wired for seeking are separate to those wired to respond pleasurably to finding; the latter provokes the production of opioids, but the urge to search is more like the perpetually unfulfilling loop of amphetamine craving.

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.


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.

At least I now know why I was up until 2am this morning… but hey, I could have stopped any time I chose to, man. [via MetaFilter]

But perhaps framing the urge to search as a purely mechanistic behaviour isn’t entirely fair… because it has its benefits, especially for those of us whose work revolves around the uncovering of new knowledge. Here’s Lisa Gold – researcher to Neal Stephenson, among others – extolling the virtues of browsing, which she defines as being different to searching in both focus and utility:

Browsing and searching are different– browsing is about the journey, searching is about the destination. Searching is focused on finding specific information quickly and often leads to tunnel-vision, which can prevent you from recognizing useful sources that don’t match your preconceived ideas and assumptions. Browsing is about slowing down, opening your eyes, feeding your curiosity, and allowing yourself the opportunity to make discoveries.

I believe it’s important to set aside time to browse on a regular basis– not just on the web, but in the physical world as well. Spend time exploring different bookstores (both new and used), visit libraries and museums, and search out unusual places you’ve never visited. Take a different route, walk around neighborhoods you don’t live in, look for hidden treasures.

Amen to that!

Psikharpax: the robot rat

Paul Raven @ 09-06-2009

Psikharpax the robot ratDespite some freaky-looking androids coming out of Japan, we have yet to develop robots that can reproduce complex autonomous human behaviours. Perhaps the problem is that we’re aiming too high?

That’s the theory held at the Paris-based Institute for Intelligent Systems and Robotics, at least, who’re looking to the rodent world for inspiration:

Rather than try to replicate human intelligence, in all its furious complexities and higher levels of language and reasoning, it would be better to start at the bottom and figure out simpler abilities that humans share with other animals, they say.

These include navigating, seeking food and avoiding dangers.

And, for this job, there can be no better inspiration than the rat, which has lived cheek-by-whisker with humans since Homo sapiens took his first steps.

The rat is the animal that scientists know best, and the structure of its brain is similar to that of humans,” says Steve Nguyen, a doctoral student at ISIR, who helped show off Psikharpax at a research and innovation fair in Paris last week.

The goal is to get Psikharpax to be able to “survive” in new environments. It would be able to spot and move around things in its way, detect when it is in danger from collision with a human in its vicinity and spot an opportunity for “feeding” — recharging its battery at power points placed around the lab.

“We want to make robots that are able to look after themselves and depend on humans as least as possible,” said Guillot.

Seems like a good idea… provided they don’t build in the natural rodent propensity for rapid reproduction. [via GlobalGuerillas; image borrowed from linked PhysOrg article]

Culture is carried by DNA?

Paul Raven @ 05-05-2009

pair of Australian zebra finchesIt sometimes feels like you can’t go two weeks without some new aspect of human life or behaviour being declared as being related to our DNA. The latest attempted conquest of genetic determinism? Why, our very culture itself!

You see, male zebra finches usually learn their courtship song patterns from their fathers, but it turns out they can generate the same songs spontaneously after a few generations without influence:

“It’s the classic ‘chicken and the egg’ puzzle,” Mitra said. “Learning may explain how the son copies its father’s song, but it doesn’t explain the origin of the father’s song.”

Mitra’s team wanted to find out what would happen if an isolated bird raised his own colony. As expected, birds raised in soundproof boxes grew up to sing cacophonous songs.

But then scientists let the isolated birds give voice lessons to a new round of hatchlings. They found that the young males imitated the songs — but they tweaked them slightly, bringing the structure closer to that of songs sung in the wild. When these birds grew up and became tutors, their pupils’ song continue to conform, with tweaks.

After three to four generations, the teachers were producing strapping young finches that belted out normal-sounding songs.

Uhm. Well, if you’re thinking that seems a little tenuous, you’re not alone:

Mitra admits that the analogies between bird culture and human culture are tenuous. “But there are resemblances. Culture is just learned behaviors. The motivating scenario is, if you isolate human babies from culture, put them on an island and come back after a few generations, what would their culture be like? What sort of language would they have? What sort of politics would evolve?”

That experiment probably won’t take place in the near future. In the meantime, Fitch says we can learn valuable lessons about human culture from songbirds, both at theoretical and mechanistic levels.

“Social learning is shared between the two, and songbirds are a well-understood and experimentally tractable system,” he said. “These biologically-grounded studies will lead us beyond the tired ‘nature versus nurture’ or ‘biology versus culture’ dichotomies which dominate the social sciences today.”

With the caveat that I’m not a geneticist or behavioural scientist, I don’t really see how birdsong and human politics are supposed to be different expressions of the same thing; the former is a biological imperative, while the latter is an emergent phenomenon. As Brian Eno once said, “culture is everything we don’t have to do”; a zebra finch that doesn’t sing sweetly won’t pass on its DNA, making its songcraft a matter of reproductive necessity, but I don’t think you can declare the same thing about, say, a great human painter or poet or politician.

That said, I’m all for getting beyond the nature/nurture dichotomy – knowing how culture emerges from biology is one of the most tempting grails of knowledge I can imagine. But in the same way that everything from alcoholism to sexuality seems to be blithely written off as being primarily a function of our genetic code, declaring such a nebulous and complex phenomenon as human culture to be passed along by DNA on the basis of some songbird studies seems… well, it seems pretty daft, really.

If there’s someone in the audience who can set me straight on this subject, I’d be very glad for them to speak up and tell me where my reasoning is wrong, but this story seems to me like just another instalment in our ongoing fetish with genetics as the key to all unsolved mysteries. [image by Lip Kee]

In defence of altruism – the unselfish gene

Paul Raven @ 12-03-2009

Is altruism a result of human societal values, or is it something innate that evolved biologically? Psychologist Dacher Keltner claims the latter may be the case:

Our research and that of other scientists suggests that the vagus nerve may be a physiological system that supports caretaking and altruism. We have found that activation of the vagus nerve is associated with feelings of compassion and the ethical intuition that humans from different social groups (even adversarial ones) share a common humanity. People who have high vagus nerve activation in a resting state, we have found, are prone to feeling emotions that promote altruism—compassion, gratitude, love, happiness. Arizona State University psychologist Nancy Eisenberg has found that children with elevated vagal tone (high baseline vagus nerve activity) are more cooperative and likely to give. This area of study is the beginning of a fascinating new argument about altruism—that a branch of our nervous system evolved to support such behavior.

If you want the opposite take (which, for what it’s worth, reads a lot less like the jacket copy for a spiritual self-help book), look no further than sf writer and biologist Peter Watts:

Men, like most male mammals, like to acquire resources. When they’re not especially horny, they’re as likely to go for furniture and big-screen TVs — i.e., major, nonportable items that remain in the home — as anything else. When they’re horny, however, they’d rather buy bling and fast cars — flashy stuff they can take on the road to attract mates. Also, when in a horny mood, they’re more likely to give publicly to panhandlers (also to indulge in risky/heroic behaviour). In other words, both conspicuous consumption and conspicuous generosity are just ways of attracting mates: hey baby, lookit me! I’ve got so much money I can just give it away!…

I wonder if we’ll ever be ale to answer this question definitively? Whether we’ll like the answer is another question entirely…

This is your pet. This is your pet on anti-anxiety drugs. Any questions?

Paul Raven @ 02-03-2009

sad pet dogThe recent hospitalization of a woman at the hands of her pet chimp has raised questions about the use of human psychiatric medicines in animals, after the victim’s initial (and now retracted) statement that the chimp had been given Xanax to control his agitation. Apparently it’s more common than I’d have expected:

As recently as the early 1990s, it was practically unheard of to treat animal behavior problems with drugs. Today it’s routine.

Prozac, for example, has been used in a few zoos to treat wild animals, including Johari, an adult female gorilla at Ohio’s Toledo Zoo that had been prone to violent fits.

But dogs and cats are by far the most common animals to be drugged to combat separation anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, aggression, noise phobia, and other issues.

The majority of anti-anxiety medications given to animals are the same ones used for people, although in different doses.

There’s a whole ethical can of worms here, and the sensitivity of the subject is exacerbated by the closeness many pet owners have to their charges. The angle I’d tend to take is that I’m not entirely convinced that the drugs in question are the best solution to the problem in humans, let alone animals – psychiatric pharmacology has what appears to be an alarming obsession with treating the symptoms rather than the root causes, and pharmacology in general seems to promise cures when it can only deliver crude controls.

But even if we take the efficacy of anti-anxiety or anti-depressant drugs as a given, is it right to give them to animals? Who are we to judge their mental states as being in need of correction? I know for a fact that my mother – an animal owner and breeder since long before I was born – would be appalled at the idea of giving psychiatric drugs to animals to control their mood, as she would consider dysfunctional behaviour to be a direct result of poor training and care. [image by Phil Romans]

Furthermore, as George Dvorsky points out his responses to the article, it begs the question of whether we should own pets at all. I think most of us could agree that keeping a chimp as a pet is not just unethical but foolish, but what of dogs and cats? The more we understand about animal psychology, the trickier these questions become.

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