Tuesday, August 16, 2011

collective dopaminergic tweaking

Video - flash mob robs 7-11

davidbrin | Please forgive this open letter, offering suggestions in a field outside my own. I'm no biologist, physician or chemist. Still, my background -- usefully exploring a wide range of scientific issues -- may make this seem less impudent. (I have written New York Times best-selling books that include The Transparent Society and The Postman.)1

Will you indulge a query that may prove pertinent to your work?

For years I've followed advances that investigate reinforcement processes in the human brain, especially those involving dopamine and other messenger chemicals that are active in mediating pleasure response. One might call this topic chemically-mediated states of arousal that self-reinforce patterns of behavior.

Of course, what this boils down to -- at one level -- is addiction. But not only in the sense of illegal drug abuse. In very general terms, "addiction" may include desirable things, like bonding with our children and "getting high on life." These good patterns share with drug addiction the property of being reinforced by repeated chemical stimulus, inside the brain.

Now, certainly, knowing that life's wholesome pleasures are chemically reinforced doesn't make love any less sincere, a sunset less beautiful, or even faith in God any less sincere. Indeed, generalizing our study of auto-reinforcement may help us understand how wholesome pleasure works... and perhaps how better to choose which behaviors get reinforced.

Please bear with me. This line of reasoning is going somewhere important. So important that it may bear upon some of society's most pressing problems.

* * * * *
Generalizing the Word "Addiction"

I have long admired those who keep advancing the science of addiction, often uphill against the oversimplifying puritanism of a stale "Drug War"... or else having to overcome naive platitudes at the other end of the political spectrum. Some of the august workers who spared time to talk to me about this topic have included Hans Breiter, Rich Wilcox, Stanley Glick, Jonathan D. Cohen, Alan I. Leshner, Gregory Berns, Dan Ariely, Steven Grant, and Seth Boatwright-Horowitz.

Like the hot topic of Global Warming, this one draws so much political heat that it's a wonder anything can get done at all. And yet, here I am, offering brazen suggestions.

Indeed, I believe the field of addiction may be myopically missing a substantial area of potential research. This area concerns volitionally or habitually self-stimulated secretion -- or, putting it rather crudely, "self-doping."

In other words, the power that individuals have to trigger the release of psychoactive chemicals simply by entering into certain types of consciousness.

I am not talking about mysticism or New Age states of awareness. True, some workers have measured neurochemical effects of meditation and other eastern arts. But this ignores a great many other pleasurable, or semi-pleasurable mental states that require considerably less discipline to access than the meditative plateau. States that are accessible to nearly everyone, every day.

Of course, this overall effect has been known ever since William James wrote Varieties of Religious Experience. But I'd like to suggest strong reasons to study autonomous self-stimulation along new directions that are tangentially related to those already being pursued. For one thing, new research trends - of which you are a part - seem to offer potential hope for getting out of the horrible Drug War.

Suppose that, instead of preaching to substance abusers that they should "get high on life," we could actually train them in self-triggered endorphin/dopamine-releasing methods? Methods the rest of us learn unconsciously in childhood. Better addictions that do not suffer from receptor down-regulating and other problems, such as depression or insatiability.

Beyond obvious implications re: substance abuse, there is another aspect of such research that might benefit society.

* * * * *
Progress in Studying "Self-Addiction"

Of course we know that individuals who are addicted to psychoactive chemicals can often wind up behaving in socially harmful ways while in pursuit of their high. But what of many other compulsively harmful behaviors we see practiced around us. Might some of them have similar roots? What if many irrationally harmful -- even self-defeating -- actions arise from individuals seeking to trigger a self-doped pleasure response?

(It has been said that "insanity is doing the same thing, over and over, while expecting different results." Doesn't that sound like addiction?)

Consider studies of gambling. Researchers led by Dr. Hans Breiter of Massachusetts General Hospital examined with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) which brain regions activate when volunteers won games of chance -- regions that overlapped with those responding to cocaine!

"Gambling produces a similar pattern of activity to cocaine in an addict," according to Breiter.

Moving along the spectrum toward activity that we consider more "normal" -- neuroscientists at Harvard have found a striking similarity between the brain-states of people trying to predict financial rewards (e.g., via the stock market) and the brains of cocaine and morphine users.

Along similar lines, researchers at Emory University monitored brain activity while asking staunch party members, from both left and right, to evaluate information that threatened their preferred candidate prior to the 2004 Presidential election. "We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning," said Drew Westen, Emory's director of clinical psychology. "Instead, a network of emotion circuits lit up... reaching biased conclusions by ignoring information that could not rationally be discounted. Significantly, activity spiked in circuits involved in reward, similar to what addicts experience when they get a fix," Westen explained.

How far can this spectrum be extended? All the way into realms of behavior -- and mental states -- that we label as wholesome? Rich Wilcox of the University of Texas says: "Recovery process in addiction is based to a great extent on cognitively mediated changes in brain chemistry of the frontal/prefrontal cortex system. Furthermore... there is even a surprising amount of literature cited in PubMed suggesting that prayer also induces substantial changes in brain chemistry."

Clearly this spectrum of "addiction" includes reinforcement of behaviors that are utterly beneficial and that have important value to us, e.g., love of our children. I get a jolt every time I smell my kids' hair, for instance. The "Aw!" that many people give when then see a baby smile is accompanied by skin flushes and iris dilation, reflecting physiological pleasure. Similar jolts come to people (variously) from music, sex, exercise and the application of skill.

Although a lot of recent research has danced along the edges of this area, I find that the core topic appears to have been rather neglected. I'm talking about the way that countless millions of humans either habitually or volitionally pursue druglike reinforcement cycles -- either for pleasure or through cycles of withdrawal and insatiability that mimic addiction -- purely as a function of entering an addictive frame of mind.

For a majority, indeed, this process goes un-noticed because there is no pathology! Reiterating; it is simply "getting high on life." Happy or at least content people who lead decent lives partake in these wholesome addictive cycles that have escaped much attention from researchers simply because these cycles operate at the highest levels of human functionality. (It is easy to verify that there is something true, underlying the phrase "addicted to love.")

This wholesomeness should no longer mask or exclude such powerfully effective mental states from scientific scrutiny. For example, we might learn more about the role of oxytocin in preventing the down-regulating or tolerance effects that exacerbate drug addiction. Does this moderating effect provide the more wholesome, internally-generated "addictions" with their long-lasting power?

Even more attractive would be to shine light on patterns of volitional or habitual addictive mentation that are NOT helpful or functional or desirable.

Gambling has already been mentioned. Rage is obviously another of these harmful patterns, that clearly have a chemical-reinforcement component. Many angry people report deriving addictive pleasure from fury, and this is one reason why they return to the state, again and again. Thrill-seeking can also be like this, when it follows a pathology of down-regulating satiability. Ernst Fehr, Brian Knutson, and John Hibbing have written about the pleasure-reinforcement of revenge, that Hollywood films tap incessantly in plot lines that give audiences a vicarious thrill of Payback against villains-who-deserve-it.


DD said...

Both my folks copy-edited early versions of "The Postman" for David, they knew him in San Diego. Ironically, he misspells my mothers names when crediting her.

Interesting as usual Perfesser.

Big Don said...

More like kleptogenetic bio-instinct run amok...

CNu said...

rotflmbao@kleptogenetic bio-instinct...., if you didn't exist we'd have to make you up! http://nicemelons.files.wordpress.com/2007/11/ass-clown.jpg