Issue #5: 'self'

Getting high on search

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by Antonia Case on November 10, 2014

A friend of mine recently sat in a waiting room in Singapore. The room was only large enough to hold a fence of chairs around its edge with almost no space in the centre. My friend took her seat and looked at the other people in the chairs. She had nothing to do but wait.

Not long afterwards, she noticed a growing sense of unease. At first she spotted muscular movement, twinges here and there, and then one by one, the people started to glance at her. She was convinced, she tells me, that she was making them anxious.

In the 1950s, psychologists were dumb-founded when rats repeatedly zapped themselves with an electric shock. When an electrode was placed in a part of the rat’s brain called the lateral hypothalamus, and the rats were given a lever to execute an electric shock, to their horror the psychologists witnessed rats pressing the lever repeatedly, up to seven hundred times per hour. Rats chose electric shock over eating and drinking, stimulating to the point of exhaustion.

Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp queried why rats would hit a lever that hurt them. What was especially troubling was that humans have similar brain systems to rats. Is it possible for humans to behave in such a manner?

Panksepp and other researchers had cottoned onto the fact that humans seek. We are happiest when we’re in search mode, seeking rewards of some description. Very few of us can happily sit in a hammock and look at the sky. Before long, we’re off, seeking something new.

Our need to seek explains many of our behaviours, which at times are perplexing even to us. We find ourselves foraging with an unexplained ferocity, planning the next big thing, the latest business idea, money-making scheme, dinner party, overseas trip, or property purchase; we seek newness in news, in people, in connections; we seek new weather, new disasters, new ideas, new inspiration. The more novel and unexpected, the bigger the hit we get from it.

Panksepp says we get off on all this seeking. The seeking itself is our reward. This explains why our seeking has a sense of being insatiable (like a conveyer belt that’s forever moving onward), and although we may convince ourselves that finding a partner, having a family, or buying the mansion with the pool will see the end to our seeking – the day when we can put up the hammock and happily look at the sky – neuroscientists give us the unfortunate verdict, that no, we’ll simply replace the search with another.

Our ancient brains are constantly seeking because survival in the past – such as finding food and water – was a full-time occupation. Today, with most of our needs already met within a civilised society, the stimulation we get from seeking is met elsewhere.

Internet search engines provide an artificial outlet for this kind of activity. When online, we are in complete and utter search mode – seeking new ideas, images, messages, connections. Our seeking pathways, called dopamine transmitters, which energise us while seeking, are firing when we’re in search mode.

Panksepp says animals can be driven into a frenzy when rewards for search are dished out in miniscule chunks; unable to be satisfied, the search continues, at a more frantic pace. The ‘ding’ announcing a new text or email message is akin to the bell Pavlov rang for his dogs. We become sweating rats in the laboratory, pressing the lever to get our fix: refresh, refresh, refresh.

My friend in Singapore observed that everyone in the waiting room was on a hand-held device hooked up to the Internet; deep in search mode, these people were getting high on search. Their searching may have taken them to property websites, online news, buying online products, watching films or talks, whatever it was it was grounded in the addiction for newness. They were seeking a hit, a fix, of dopamine.

Not surprisingly, drugs like cocaine and amphetamines also fuel the dopamine system. Drug users can get to the point where they can’t stop seeking drugs, even as the rewards for using decline over time. Our Internet usage, similarly, is typically less rewarding over time as news sites begin to annoy us and Internet research leads us nowhere. However, according to Panksepp, the problem for both rats and us larger mammals is that we can get caught in a loop where “each stimulation evokes a reinvigatored search strategy”. We keep hitting that refresh button because we have no choice – we’re caught in a loop.

Our need to seek could be put to good use if we did not live in a time of distraction. Our insatiable curiosity and directed purpose could be harnessed to write operas, learn languages, paint and sing – like the aristocrats of time past, who like us, were spared the troubles of locating food and water to survive. Seeking is a motivating force that can move mountains. Unfortunately for us, however, our society has set up a range of activities to direct this seeking behaviour – to take it in, to set it on loop, to exhaust it before it can flourish.

My friend is still a tad perplexed as to why her presence in a roomful of internet users was the cause of so much angst amongst them. As she sat there surveying the colour of the walls, the shoes and feet on the carpet, the tap tap tapping on the plastic keys, she was doing no harm. So why the anxiety?

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