According Irving Biederman of the University of Southern California and Edward Vessel of New York University, the process of acquiring new knowledge might actually be analgesic. Beiderman and Vessel believe that humans have an innate drive for information–we are ‘infovores‘–and they think that the same brain mechanisms which control pain and reward are responsible.
The brain is wired for pleasure
That the human brain has information-acquisition mechanisms which reward us for learning about our environment should not surprise us – such mechanisms would have an obvious evolutionary advantage. If ‘infovorous’ behaviour is advantageous it would follow that the brain has developed mechanisms which actually encourage information-seeking behaviour.
Beiderman and Vessel explain that mu-opioid receptors, which are involved in the modulation of pain and reward, are found in increasing density along the neural pathways responsible for visual and auditory processing, perceptual association and memory. Neural activity in these areas results in the release of endomorphins and subsequent stimulation of the mu-opioid receptors, which causes feelings of pleasure. Since the density of mu-opioid receptors increases along the processing pathway, information that contains lots of interpretable information will result in the greater stimulation of opioid receptors in the later stages of association processing and will therefore provide the greatest pleasure.
Understanding new information is key
Unless we are satisfying hunger or sexual drive, avoiding harm or are engaged in some other goal-directed behaviour our hunger for information is active, and boredom sets in pretty quickly when this drive is even moderately starved. We crave a constant supply of new and engaging information. When we are repeatedly exposed to the same stimulus pattern, like watching a movie for the fourth time, only a fraction of the same neurons active the first time will respond and the potential for pleasure diminishes.
Although humans have a preference for experiences that are both novel and richly interpretable, we can also derive increased pleasure with repeated exposure to the same information if we have not yet understood it. Beiderman and Vessel suggest that the pleasure derived from new information peaks at what they call the “click” of comprehension. According to the researchers, “the click corresponds to the release of endomorphins in the association areas as the brain makes rich connections with stored information”. Once we have understood the subject our preference for ongoing exposure declines, which reduces endomorphin release on the next exposure.
Maximise the pleasure of your addiction to learning
The brain’s craving for pleasure has ensured that the infovore system is designed to maximise the rate at which we absorb information. However, to maximise the pleasure derived from acquiring new information we need stimuli that are both novel and highly interpretable, and we need it as fast as we can comprehend it. This “preferred rate” of information exposure may correspond to the maximal release of endomorphins, explaining why information that is presented much more slowly than the rate of comprehension typically causes boredom or frustration instead of pleasure. Remember surfing the web with a dial-up modem? Information may also be presented faster than we can comprehend it, which is common when learning something complex, but anticipation of the rush when you ‘get it’ presents a powerful incentive to keep plugging away.
If Beiderman and Vessel’s work is accurate, then the human craving for information might compel the creation of a media that is immediately available, offers an endless variety of new and engaging information, provides ample opportunity for interpretive challenge, and can be delivered at rates according to individual preference.
Sounds a lot like the internet to me.
1. Biederman I, Vessel E. A. Perceptual pleasure and the brain. American Scientist. 2006;94:247-53.