All Doped up and Thinking ahead

SEED editor Jonah Lehrer, who will be at the IdeaFestival in September, has written often and thoughtfully about the wonders of the human brain in his blog, Frontal Cortex, and in particular - my favorite topic - about how we as sense-making beings can - or cannot - know.

In his latest full length article, "New State of Mind," Lehrer again connects knowing to biology, describing research linking dopamine to pleasure and to a host of social behaviors that result, from simple disappointment to stock market bubbles.

Connecting pleasure to understanding is one reason play in general, and game design in particular, has emerged as a valuable economic and intellectual pursuit. He should really sit down at IF and have a long discussion with alternative reality game designer Jane McGonigal, who will also attend.

Read Montague is director of the Human Neuroimaging Lab at Baylor College of Medicine, and collaborates with Peter Dayan of the Salk Institute. More than discovering the link between pleasure and understanding, current neurology goes further and demonstrates how we use the resulting that data to extend that understanding.


The crucial feature of these dopamine neurons, say Montague and Dayan, is that they are more concerned with predicting rewards than with the rewards themselves. Once the cells memorize the simple pattern — a loud tone predicts the arrival of juice — they become exquisitely sensitive to variations on the pattern. If the cellular predictions proved correct and the primates experienced a surge of dopamine, the prediction was reinforced. However, if the pattern was violated — if the tone sounded but the juice never arrived — then the monkey’s dopamine neurons abruptly decreased their firing rate. This is known as the “prediction error signal.” The monkey got upset because its predictions of juice were wrong.

What’s interesting about this system is that it’s all about expectation. Dopamine neurons constantly generate patterns based upon experience: If this, then that. The cacophony of reality is distilled into models of correlation.

"Models of correlation" are only a couple of sentences away from something else. On this reading, story takes those correlative values and arranges them in a meaningful way. 

Story is the human-readable data we pull around our shoulders on a cold winter night when things haven't gone as expected. When the doctor has bad news. Or when we watch a loved one slipping toward the unknown.

Alternatively, it can map how we might overcome impossible odds to reach previously unattainable goals, or, thoughtfully conceived, take us to places and people that thrill and make life worth the living. Story can get the past wrong. But it can also get the future oh so right.