Ever since I read about how the ‘Thirst For Knowledge’ may be a kind of opioid craving, my thinking about how my mind manages my physical pain has really changed. Actually, it jumped ahead in a big way, when I read about Mary Meagher’s work on how fear and anxiety have different affects on physical pain. But having the kind of associational brain I do… a brain which isn’t very good at sticking with linear, sequential tasks, but eagerly hops around from one related topic to another… I did end up here, thinking about how the human brain craves novelty, and why that might be.
I’ve come to realize, in the past months, that many of my patterns of risk-taking and danger-seeking behavior, not to mention my constant stream of distractions that keep me all jazzed up, have a lot to do with relieving my constant levels of discomfort, distress, and pain. Not only that, but they seem to be linked to a sort of depressed state in my thinking — not necessarily emotionally depressed, but functionally slowed. My history of TBIs has not helped my cognitive processing speed, and there are parts of my brain (as evidenced on my EEG) that physically work more slowly than would be expected.
Actually, come to think of it, emotional depression sometimes follows on my cognitive depression/slowing, so I can’t discount that part of my experience.
Now, when it comes to getting on with my everyday life, risky decision-making and flawed judgment are just part of my problem. Chasing conceptual chimeras — such as my all-consuming obsession with my MRI, as well as new and emerging neuroscience research, which I may never fully understand but which fascinate me to no end — and commencing projects that I will never actually finish — like that 500-page documentation set for one of my favorite software programs of the day — are actually more disruptive and pose more of a risk to my adequate functioning than outright risk-taking behavior.
And yet, I chase after these new ideas and take up new projects, left and right, neglecting the real parts of my life that suffer from my lack of attention. I’m so busy researching and reading and exploring my MRI in 3D, that I forget to pay bills. Or do paperwork. Or make calls I need to be making.
I don’t think I fully understood the impact that my intense need for mental stimulation had on my life, until a little over a year ago, when I came across one of my old notebooks that had plans and details and milestones for all these projects I had once been utterly consumed by. There were no less than seven different highly involved, complex projects that filled different parts of that three-ring notebook. And then I found more in another notebook. I uncovered a whole bunch of different projects that I’d started… then got distracted from and completely forgot about.
Discovering those notebooks opened my eyes in several ways.
First, I realized that I had so completely forgotten about those projects, that they might as well have never existed. And that happened, after I had invested literally hundreds of hours scoping and planning in great detail for each of them. It seemed impossible that I would forget even one of these projects. But I had lost track of more than ten.
Second, I realized just how irrationally compulsive I was about my projects, and it occurred to me that someting might be very wrong in my thought processes. The majority of people I know don’t do this sort of thing… why was I?
Third, I realized that even if I had all the time in the world, I never could have finished all of these Very Important Undertakings. But that didn’t matter to me. What mattered to me, was the doing. The “journey”. The process of pursuing these things. It went against every fiber in my pragmatic being and seemed like a total waste of time. Yet, part of me didn’t care. It would create with abandon and not give a crap about what might actually come of it all. And that troubled me. Because it didn’t seem like me.
Or maybe it did. All my life, I’ve been fascinated by fringe interests and I’ve pursued them with gusto. When I was a kid, I had a lot of projects going on all the time, and my parents and teachers used to just writhe with frustration at how I could never take any of my projects to a higher level, where they would develop fully and be shareable with others. I would read all about certain subjects and discourse on them at great length, but I could never seem to develop my interests in other directions. I had a “chemistry set” in the basement, where I did extensive studies on the interactions of vinegar and baking soda, and I mixed leftovers from my father’s aftershave with my mother’s talcum powder. But my interests never went much farther than that, for all I learned about fizzy cooking ingredients and the crackle patterns of dried personal care products.
In my adulthood, the intensity of my interests increased substantially, as has their esoteric “quotient”. Over the past 20 years, I have frequently found myself deeply engulfed in studies that interested maybe 5 other people in the world, but my devotion ran to the very core of my being. I’ve also found myself utterly consumed with a topic that was probably well beyond my ability to understand — quantum physics, biophysics, medieval history, and more — all sorts of information-intensive subjects that require years of training (which I didn’t have) to understand completely. My interest has intensified and evolved over the years, but the shareability of my learnings actually decreased. I would read and take in and then recount what I had taken in, but my writing was dense and obfuscated by way too much detail.
Then I fell in 2004 and hit my head and found myself unable to focus and sustain the same level of attention to my old areas of study. My office is filled with books I’d bought, intending to read them in my line of study, but it could be that will never happen.
Still, I do crave my distractions. And between 2004 and 2008, the number and kinds of projects I was consumed by increased exponentially. I just careened from project to project, spending long hours scoping and planning and thinking and noodling. I got so swamped in the details, I couldn’t see my way clear to completion on any of them. But I didn’t care. I just wanted the high of that novelty. The newness, the freshness, the rush that came from a bright new idea.
While I was in the thick of my planning and dreaming and scheming, all was well. But when I stepped back and took a closer look at how much energy I was expending, and how it was getting me nowhere, it just didn’t sit right with me. And I’ve been trying to figure out what the underlying mechanism of that is, ever since.
I think I’m closer now to figuring it out, than I’ve been in quite some time. I can’t speak for anyone else, but what I’ve found makes sense in my own personal context. It’s neurological. It’s biochemical. It’s ingrained. And it’s essential for my mental health and general well-being. I need my distractions, my rushes, my “pump” in order to feel normal. In order to feel human. And the thing that delivers a better rush and pump than just about anything else, is novelty. A new idea. A fresh concept. It’s a tonic to me… and an essential one at that.
Dr. Irving Biederman has some really interesting things to say about this stuff. It’s my understanding that he specializes in things like the neurology of face recognition (which, it occurs to me, could be really useful to folks who study autism/Asperger’s Syndrome and are trying to understand why ASD folks have a hard time decoding facial expressions). This “info junkie” track he occasionally writes about seems like a lesser area of interest for him, from what I’ve read. But it’s much more practically useful to me, than shape and face recognition.
So, that’s what I dwell on, vis-a-vis his reasearch.
Here’s an article about the sensual lure of mental novelty, which I swiped in its entirety from the LA Times:
From the Los Angeles Times
As ‘infovores,’ information is the fuel that keeps our brains all fired up.
By Irving Biederman
July 19, 2008
Crackberry. Only a metaphor for our addiction-like urge to check e-mail? Or does the term shed light on a deep biological truth about our hunger for information?
Human-motivation studies traditionally stress well-established needs: food, water, sex, avoidance of pain. In a culture like ours, most of these needs can be satisfied easily. Just open the refrigerator door, or blow on that spoonful of hot soup. (Satisfying the need for sex may require a bit more doing.)
What’s been missing from this scientific research is humans’ nonstop need for more information.
We are “infovores.” The human eye makes three fixations a second on the world around it, and not at random. Our gaze is drawn to items we suspect have something new to tell us — posters, signs, windows, vistas, busy streets. Confined to a featureless physician’s examination room, we desperately seek a magazine, lest we be reduced to counting the holes in the ceiling tiles. Cornered at a party in a banal conversation, we seek to freshen our drink.
Without new information to assimilate, we experience a highly unpleasant state. Boredom. Conversely, at one time or another, each of us has felt the joy of information-absorption — the conversation that lasts late into the night, the awe at a magnificent vista.
Cognitive neuroscience — the science that seeks to explain how mind emerges from brain — is beginning to unravel how this all works. At USC, my students and I use brain scanning to specifically investigate the neuroscience behind the infovore phenomenon.
The explanation involves opioids, one of many neurotransmitters — which are molecules that the neurons in our brain release to activate or inhibit other neighboring neurons. The effect of opioids is pleasurable. In fact, the same neural receptors are involved in the high we get from opiate drugs, such as heroin or morphine.
In the past, these opioids were believed to exist primarily in the spinal cord and lower brain centers, where they reduced the sensation of pain. But more recently, a gradient of opioid receptors was discovered in a region of the cerebral cortex, humans’ enormous outer brain layer that is largely responsible for perception and cognition.
In the areas of the cortex that initially receive visual or auditory information, opioids are sparse. But in “association areas,” where the sensory information triggers memory and taps into previous knowledge, there is a high density of opioid receptors. So the more a new piece of information tickles that part of your brain where you interpret the scene or conversation, the bigger the opioid hit.
Staring at a blank wall will produce few, if any, mental associations, and thus standing in a corner is punishment. Looking at a random mass of objects will produce strong activation only in the initial stages, where there is little opioid activity to be had.
Gaze at something that leads to a novel interpretation, however, and that will spur higher levels of associative activity in opioid-dense areas. We are thus thrilled when new insights tap into what we have previously learned. We seek ways to feed our opioid desires; we are willing to endure the line at the movie theater in anticipation of the pleasure within. We pay more for a room with a view or a cup of coffee at a Parisian sidewalk cafe.
But if we get more opioids from making connections to our memories and knowledge, why do we then prefer the new? The first time our brains take in a new perception — a scene, a movie, a literary passage — there’s a high level of activity in which a few neurons are strongly activated but the vast majority are only moderately or weakly activated. The strongly activated neurons inhibit the weak — so there’s a net reduction of activity and less opioid pleasure when our brain is exposed to the same information again. (Don’t feel sorry for the inhibited neurons, the losers in this instance of neural Darwinism. They are now freed up to code other experiences.)
No wonder we can’t resist carrying a BlackBerry 24/7. Who knows what goodies it will deliver? A breaking news item. A piece of gossip. An e-mail from a long-ago girlfriend. Another wirelessly and instantaneously delivered opioid hit.
I hope you got a few opioid hits, too, in learning about your inner infovore.
As for me, I’m starting to feel separation anxiety. Where’s my BlackBerry?
Irving Biederman directs the Image Understanding Laboratory at USC, where he is a professor in the departments of psychology and computer science and the neuroscience program.
I did indeed get more than a few opioid hits while I was reading this. As Dr. Biederman says, in “association areas,” where the sensory information triggers memory and taps into previous knowledge, there is a high density of opioid receptors. So the more a new piece of information tickles that part of your brain where you interpret the scene or conversation, the bigger the opioid hit. And because I’ve devoted so much of my life to acquiring and taking in information… data… knowledge and what memories I am able to create and maintain are quite intact (my info absorption during memory creation is about around 60%, but my retention is close to 100%, so I have very detailed recollections of a little more than half of what I am exposed to), that my association areas are well-disposed to getting high off this information.
I suspect that’s what makes the internet so addictive for me — and others. It’s not about the movies and games and pictures. It’s about the novel information that I can read and take in and assimilate and use to feed my inner needs, which are more than just an information addiction.
And I suspect this is what makes my world of projects so fascinating and compelling for me. It’s not about commercializing or publicizing my work. It’s not about profiting from it or getting famous from it. It’s not about taking the projects public, or even actually finishing them. It’s just about doing them. Creating. Being. Doing. Having at it and seeing what happens. Learning. Driving. Getting energized. And cutting the pain I’m usually fighting, in the process.
It’s not about the projects. It’s not even about my progress. It’s about the pain. Getting rid of it. Doing away with it. Keeping my mind off it. Not being debilitated by it. It’s about relieving the distress that comes from the daily difficulties I have with the most basic shit on earth — getting out of bed, taking a shower and using soap and shampoo, making sure I don’t lose my balance and fall in the tub, getting dressed in clean clothes that I didn’t wear yesterday, making a breakfast that will get me through the morning, feeding the cat and gathering my work stuff, making sure I have my wallet and car keys and my daily minder, and getting in the car without bumping against it and getting my work clothes covered with salt and dust that’s leftover from the winter and I haven’t gotten around to cleaning off my car, just yet.
There is so much that others can take for granted, when it comes to everyday life. How hard can it be? Well, if you don’t know… trust me, you don’t want to know. All I can say is, when I look at my distractions, my intellectual compulsions, my wide array of Beloved Projects That Will Probably Go Nowhere, I see a pattern of analgesic activity that may not serve a higher purpose and come to much, in terms of published papers or fame and glory and prizes, but which is utterly essential to my daily functioning as a “regular” person. Without my all-consuming interests, my fascinations, my cognitive compulsions, my life would be a lot more painful, my mind would be a lot less clear, and I’d be a lot less useful — not only in advanced ways, but in the most fundamental ways one can imagine.
Now, where are those printouts I’d gotten on the long-term biochemical effects of post-traumatic stress? I’ve got work to do…