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Gregory Berns (2005)


How do you get more dopamine flowing in your brain? Novelty. A raft of brain imaging experiments has demonstrated that novel events, because they challenge you to act, are highly effective at releasing dopamine. A novel event can be almost anything—seeing a painting for the first time, learning a new word, having a pleasant, or an unpleasant, experience—but the key factor is surprise. Your brain is stimulated by surprise because our world is fundamentally unpredictable. Like it or not, nature has given you a brain attuned to the world as it is. You may not always like novelty, but your brain does. You could almost say that your brain has a mind of its own.
Actually, there are many "minds" in your brain, each with its own set of desires. For instance, there is your mind as you work, your mind when you are at home, and your mind when you are enjoying a fine meal. At any given moment, only one mind is in control of your body, but the simple fact that you can hold competing thoughts in your head at the same time indicates that your other minds constantly vie for control too. When you encounter something novel, dopamine is released, setting off a biochemical cascade in your brain. The process is a little like hitting the reset button on a computer: your other minds, each with their own agenda, might strive to gain the upper hand after the reset. Dopamine is the catalyst for all this action. (xiii-xiv)

Although we found that the striatum responded more to unpredictable rewards than to predictable ones, we didn't know whether this meant that unpredictable squirts were more pleasurable than predictable ones or whether the unpredictability rendered swallowing more important because the subjects couldn't prepare for it. Either way, unpredictability was the key factor. The brain, particularly the striatum, seems to care most about what it can't predict. (12)

One way to pin down novelty is through its relationship with information. Novel events, when they occur, contain a great deal of information that you don't already know. In the 1940s, Claude Shannon, an engineer at Bell Labs, realized that information could be measured by the degree to which something was surprising. To a first approximation, the information contained in an event is inversely proportional to the probability of that event happening. Novel events, by definition, are uncommon, and therefore informative. Information, however, does not necessarily bring with it meaning. The value of information, as opposed to the quantity, can be measured by the extent to which a piece of information reduces our uncertainty about the world.
Because we enter the world in a state of maximal uncertainty, the behaviors of a newborn are hardwired—including the desire to learn and explore the world. But to survive, and ultimately reproduce, we must somehow internalize those properties of the world that we need to understand. The drive to make better predictions leads naturally to the internalization of information; at the same time, we know that our predictions will never be perfect. We will always have some uncertainty; moreover, we don't want to waste mental resources processing random facts that are of no use to us. How does the brain decide what is important? The striatum plays a key role.
The striatum is where the interaction between the individual and the environment happens. Because of the density of information flowing through it, the elements of this interaction are boiled down into a highly concentrated form, and that is why the striatum is critical to an active life. If, for example, you do something at which you are highly practiced, then you have little opportunity to encounter something novel or unexpected, so dopamine and satisfaction may be low. But when you do something that takes you beyond what you have done before, you are in unknown territory and novel information will flow into your striatum, pumping out dopamine, which in turn forces you to act on the information. The release of dopamine in response to novel information is the essence of a satisfying experience and kick-starts the motivational system. Beyond the warm feeling of dopamine itself, however, the effect of novelty that spurs its release changes the brain physically.
When a piece of information makes its way into the brain, it doesn't just lodge in some memory bank. It alters the brain at a molecular level, which is amazing if you think about it. How is it that something as abstract as ink on a piece of paper, or photons emanating from a television, can move proteins around in the neurons of your brain? Your brain transforms information into a physical manifestation of neuronal firing and merges it with other bits of information in your head; at the level of DNA, dopamine and other neurotransmitters cause new proteins to be synthesized. (14-15)

The brain wants novelty, and although money is not the only means of satisfying this desire, money makes it easier to get. (36)

Bernoulli knew that money had diminishing utility, but he never explained why. In the 1970s, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, both psychologists, showed that Bernoulli had missed a crucial aspect of the way people think about money. You view money not in terms of absolute wealth, they argued, but as gains and losses from your status quo. Moreover, people consider the pain of losing money to be worse than the pleasure of an equivalent gain. Kahneman and Tversky called this idea prospect theory, and it was based largely on observations of the kinds of lotteries people are willing to play.
Why should losses loom larger than gains? The reason, I think, comes from the way the prices of all the goods and services in the world are distributed. Once you have enough money to buy, potentially, anything under $500, then increasing that amount also increases the number of possibilities—but at a diminishing rate. Conversely, if you lose the same amount of money, you close off a greater number of possibilities than you would have acquired had you gained the equivalent amount. Imagine how it feels to lose $500—say, the cost of a minor auto accident or an unexpected tax bill. You'll probably think about the things you can no longer buy with the money (like a TV or a computer). Such thoughts explain why people are more averse to risk the wealthier they become. The wealthy live with greater possibilities of loss than of gain. (38-9)

If it is the accrual of possibilities, and not just of material goods, that explains why people apparently wish to have more money, the notion also explains why spending money is not as satisfying as you might hope. The act of buying something closes off any number of other possibilities. You lose potential information during the act of a purchase, which psychologists call regret. You make decisions with one eye on the desired outcome and the other on possible outcomes (often referred to as "counterfactuals"). Thus the choices you make come, in part, from the desire to avoid regret. Buyer's remorse—the sinking feeling that you shouldn't have made a major purchase—occurs because you must also consider the other things you could have bought with that money.
The logic of this argument leads to two surprising conclusions. First, if you have enough money for basic needs, with some cash left over for modest discretionary purchases, then acquiring more money will lead to fewer, not more, possibilities on a per dollar basis. Second, once you earn enough to have discretionary money, you shouldn't spend it. Having options is a good thing, and therefore losing options—when you spend money—is a bad thing. (39-40)

If the satisfaction of having money comes from the work you do to earn it, what happens when you work for nothing? Most of the things you do are probably undertaken without regard to compensation, more or less for the pleasure of the experience. (47)

The brain's need for intellectual novelty manifests as curiosity. Through most of history, curiosity has not necessarily been considered a virtue, as it is more often viewed today. Here is how Saint Augustine, in A.D. 397, described curiosity as "the lust of the eyes":
For besides that concupiscence of the flesh which consisteth in the delight of all senses and pleasure ... a certain vain and curious desire, veiled under the title of knowledge and learning, not of delighting in the flesh, but of making experiments with the flesh. The seat whereof being in the appetite of knowledge, and sight being the sense chiefly used for attaining knowledge, it is in Divine language called the lust of the eyes. (52)

Allan Reiss, a psychiatrist at Stanford University, presented cartoons to people in an MRI scanner. The cartoons were culled from a variety of sources but were typified by ones from the series Bizarro, by Dan Piraro, who is known for his irreverent, twisted outlook on contemporary life. As a control condition, Reiss altered the captions of some of Piraro's cartoons, replacing them with descriptive, nonfunny ones. This manipulation allowed Reiss to control for the visual and language elements of the cartoons, while removing the element of humor. The cartoons with original captions activated a widespread cortical network and also parts of the reward system, including the striatum and nucleus accumbens. It is tempting to conclude that this activity pattern, because it occurred in the reward system, reflects the pleasurable component of humor, but a more parsimonious explanation would be that each of these elements was responding to the novel information in the cartoons and not to the pleasure of the humor. Funny cartoons push more information into the brain because they restructure your worldview. (67-8)

He was placing pieces of Valrhona chocolate in a double boiler, handling the chunks as if they were gold. "Chocolate is the most sensuous of foods," he said as he added the last of what looked to be about a pound. "It melts at precisely the temperature of the human body."
It was indeed a happy coincidence that one of the most beloved of foods is matched so closely to the human body. A piece of high quality chocolate placed on the tongue will actually feel cool because the process of melting it absorbs energy from the mouth without raising the temperature of the chocolate. (84)

From the mid-1930s to the early 1950s, about 100,000 lobotomies had been performed, but not all physicians were convinced that the procedure improved the lives of their patients. The lobotomy eliminated disruptive behaviors, but it also removed much of the internal dialogue that we associate with being human. Many lobotomized patients passed their days in a perpetual present, with no sense of the past or of the future. (103)

Deep in the brain, pleasure and pain are not so different from each other. All that matters is novelty. (119)

As Sacher-Masoch portrayed it, and Deleuze later recognized, the pleasure of pain derives from suspense, which, I believe, has its origin in the brain's craving for novelty. Postponing an outcome, which creates suspense, is just another way of injecting uncertainty into an experience, making the ending that much more satisfying. Any good movie uses the same technique. (130)

Not everyone would agree with the contention that discomfort is a necessary ingredient for a satisfying experience. Perhaps discomfort is too strong a word. In 1990, the University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly (pronounced chick-sent-me-high-ee) published Flow. Based on two decades' worth of research, Csikszentmihaly's book argues that happiness, which he linked to the achievement of the state he calls "flow," arises from two elements: skills and challenges. Flow takes place when challenges match one's skills; if one is an accomplished pianist, for example, then flow occurs when playing a challenging piece, whereas a more modest pianist could achieve flow from playing a less complex arrangement. A sense of dynamism is central to the notion of flow: to achieve this state, one has to be challenged, and, through that challenge, change. (147)

A guiding tenet of endocrinology states that the brain is a privileged organ. The body will do whatever it takes to please the brain and to keep it alive. What does the brain like most? Glucose. When glucose starts running low, other organs adjust their metabolism to use less of it, saving what is left for the brain; when glucose stores run really low, the brain shifts, somewhat reluctantly, to an alternative source of energy. Although the brain can't use the energy locked up in fat, parts of the brain can, under certain circumstances, use a by-product of fat metabolism for energy—ketones. (160-1)

It was a powerful experience—certainly for the runners, but also for the observers. You cannot help but be affected by the sheer force of will that compels these athletes to push their bodies to the limits, nor can you overlook the outward effects of the crucible of physical pain and exhaustion that we know alters the brain. The body heals, but I think the impact on the brain may be more lasting, Though we don't know exactly where the change comes from, we do know that dopamine and cortisol are likely suspects. Anything you can do to promote the release of these two hormones in tandem, even in small amounts, might lead you to transforming experiences. Change, after all, is the goal, and the best way to sate the need for novelty. (174)

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