Desperately seeking something

Slate magazine has an article on “how the brain hard-wires us to love Google, Twitter, and texting” which has become remarkably popular but buys into the dopamine myth and misapplies it to the nebulous concept of ‘information’.

The piece is, on the surface, quite appealing because it seems to give a more sophisticated account of the dopamine = pleasure myth of old, suggesting instead that dopamine really equals seeking and it’s the system that motivates us to search out rewards.

There is a some truth in this, as one of the several theories of the dopamine system is that it works as a reward prediction system, based on evidence that dopamine neurons in the ventral tegmentum fire when a neutral event (like a beep) comes shortly before a reward (like food) but disappears when the beep keeps happening without any food arriving.

This theory is not without its problems by the way, and it shouldn’t be assumed that this is really how it is.

The article rambles on a bit about the distinction between pleasure and seeking, experiments on dopamine and motivation, and then falls off a cliff:

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….

Panksepp says a way to drive animals into a frenzy is to give them only tiny bits of food: This simultaneously stimulating and unsatisfying tease sends the seeking system into hyperactivity.

Berridge says the “ding” announcing a new e-mail or the vibration that signals the arrival of a text message serves as a reward cue for us. And when we respond, we get a little piece of news (Twitter, anyone?), making us want more.

So we’ve gone from the neurobiology of dopamine in rats rewarded by food pellets to the “ding” of an email arriving. Science!

The crucial issue is the question of what counts as a reward. In almost all of these articles, it is assumed that Google and Twitter work as rewards because they are ‘information’.

But as far as the brain is concerned, ‘information’ encompasses all input from the senses. When you look a tree searching for unusual patterns in the bark, you are getting information and rewards. We could just as easily rewrite the article as “how the brain hard-wires us to love forests, trees, and curious patterns in the bark”.

You could, of course, and the article would be equally as (in)valid scientifically, but you’d never get it in the media because there’s currently a market for faux science internet scare stories but not hand-wringing over the addictive potential of trees.

But apart from these cultural issues, the article confuses primary (or natural) rewards and secondary (or learnt) rewards. Primary rewards are things like food, sex and escape from pain. They’re acquired from evolution, essential for our survival and universal. Secondary rewards are things like money, praise and well… anything else and that’s because we have to learn secondary rewards.

There’s nothing innately rewarding about a crumpled bit of coloured paper but we’ve learnt to link money to our innate primary rewards.

In contrast, the article makes a leap between mostly animal studies that have looked at the neurobiology of primary reward prediction and misapplies it to digital technology as if receiving ‘information’ is equivalent to a rat receiving a food pellet when it’s hungry.

But the concept of ‘information’ is orders of magnitude more abstract because there is nothing innately rewarding about a sensation. It depends on how we interpret the sensation or, in information terms, its content.

For example, the article implies that ‘novel’ and ‘unpredictable’ digital information is rewarding but if this is the case, why do we dislike spam so much? The explanation lies in why that information is meaningful and this goes way beyond misapplied ideas about the dopamine reward system.

We are not motivated to seek any information, otherwise I’d never take my eyes off the sky. The meaning and relevance is key.

In other words, if you want to explain compulsive behaviour you need to explain how the behaviour has become rewarding and this could be as varied and different as human nature itself.

The ‘dopamine reward system’ explanation is one of the most widely abused and misapplied scientific theories in the popular press. Be wary when anyone can’t explain why it is relevant.

Link to Slate article ‘Seeking’.

2 Comments

  1. Posted August 17, 2009 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    Very true.
    Incidentally, money is a great example of why conditioning based theories of human behaviour don’t work. Good things happen when you give money away, to buy stuff, not when you gain it. So if anything is a “secondary reinforcer” in the sense of being paired with a primary reward, it should be losing money…

  2. Vinnie
    Posted August 18, 2009 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    More specifically, I think what excites us information (or the prospect of information, e.g. the sound of a text coming in) that does one of the following:
    -reinforces our personality and behaviors
    -directly stimulates our senses of sight and sound
    -reinforces our connectedness with others
    -provides a challenge with subsequent reward
    -portends the promise of a future primary reinforcer
    I think the main differences between a tweet and a tree are the elements of spontaneity and engagement with the sender.


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