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Perceptual pleasure and the Brain

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Today, on my lunch break, I read an article (American Scientist, May-June 2006) which attempted to explain why we get a kick out of learning something new - why we have an appetite for knowledge.

The claim is that the neural pathways through which we learn about the world tap into the same pleasure networks in the brain as are activated by drugs like heroin. They said that, for humans, only the basic urges of hunger, harm avoidance and the need to find a mate can distract us from this info-craving. They focused on the brain's visual system but the belief is that similar mechanism may be involved in other senses as well (similar gradient has been observed in auditory system).

It has been found that areas in the brain involved in processing of visual information contain mu-opioid receptors which are generally localized to parts of the central nervous system that are implicated in modulation of pain and reward (same receptors which bind morphine-like substances). What is especially intriguing is that those receptors are distributed in a gradient which gradually increases in density. The receptors are sparsest in the early stages of the visual pathway (where image is processed as local bits of contour, color, and texture), present in greater numbers in the intermediate stages of visual processing (which intergrate local information to detect surfaces, objects, faces, places) and are the densest in the later stages of recognition where visual information engages our memories (the so called association area).

The association areas are repositories for both semantic memories (facts and concepts) and eposodic memories (autobiographical experiences, time, place, emotions associated with the event) and are activated when the brain tries to interpret what it's seeing and hearing.

If a stimulus contains a great deal of interpretable information - it leads to more neural activity, greater release of endomorphins and increased stimulation of mu-opioid receptors. As more opioid receptors are stimulated there is a boost in the pleasant effects.

So, for example, a visual stimulus that elicits many episodic or semantic memories is more pleasing than a stimulus that brings forth fewer mental associations. Also, they said that an initial presentation of a stimulus pattern activates a larger population of neurons which is why humans prefer novelty (greater pleasure experienced on first seeing a movie ect). In essence, humans have a preference for experiences which are both novel and richly interpretable.

It looks like the brain has information-aquisition mechanisms that reward us for learning. The article emphasized that perceptual preferences arise from the connections the brain makes with stored information. In other words, it is the interpretation of a visual pattern, when we make sense of it, that leads to the greatest feelings of pleasure.

When one struggles to comprehend a new idea, there is increased pleasure with repeated exposure, which peaks at the point of comprehension, after which, the preference declines. This can be observed in children who often wish to hear the same story over and over, even to the point of having it memorized but when questioned they often reveal lack of comprehension. It is only after a child fully understands the point of the story that he tires of hearing it again.

This also suggest that there is a preferred rate of presenting information that may correspond to the release of endomorphins. This is nothing new, we experience an aversion to perceptual inputs that are presented much more slowly than the rate of comprehension.

So good news, we are biologically inclined to love learning - it just has to be done in a right way.

Very cool!

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I like this a lot. Thanks for sharing it. It seems to ring very true in my experience. Perhaps a persons intelligence could have something to do with the amount of pleasure they derive from learning. More intelligent people derive more pleasure from learning and so they continue to learn more and more. Over time they are just smarter than the people who don't derive as much pleasure from learning.

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OK, I admit it. I'm hooked. I'm strung out. I'm jonesin' for another hit.... :thumbsup:

Thanks Sophia. THis is very cool info.

This fits with some of what I know about positive reinforcement training as well. There needs to be a mechanism that is self reinforcing that helps organisms progress over time.

It sort of fits with the objectivist idea of virtue and long range thinking.

What is interesting to me is, is there any correlation with the type of information? I'm just thinking about what mechanisms in the brain will ultimately be linked to volition. Or is any information cause hte same response???

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What is interesting to me is, is there any correlation with the type of information? I'm just thinking about what mechanisms in the brain will ultimately be linked to volition. Or is any information cause hte same response???

They used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) which measures the flow of blood to the brain with a precision of a few millimeters, allowing scientists to identify regions which are using significant amounts of oxygen - a measure of neural activity.

"Interesting" stimuli, one with the greatest amount of novel interpretable information produced the most activity in the visual association areas, and so produced the maximum perceptual pleasure for the viewer. Scenes with an element of mystery, where something was happening or could happen, were also favored.

I think it is any information as long at it is interesting to us and not meaningless. Interpretation, comprehension, and integration were found most rewarding.

Edited by ~Sophia~
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Oh this puts in more scientific terms the general ideas I had to how this sort of thing would work, and I was not too far off.

Are you able to tell me which scientist(s) conducted this research and where I might be able to find any information on any other similar findings that they might have released?

More intelligent people derive more pleasure from learning and so they continue to learn more and more. Over time they are just smarter than the people who don't derive as much pleasure from learning.

He might be onto something there, it could also be that as they are more likely to engage in long term learning that they develop more of a pleasurable result, and therefore it is not a direct result of being more intelligent as such.

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Today, on my lunch break, I read an article (American Scientist, May-June 2006) which attempted to explain why we get a kick out of learning something new - why we have an appetite for knowledge.

The claim is that the neural pathways through which we learn about the world tap into the same pleasure networks in the brain as are activated by drugs like heroin. They said that, for humans, only the basic urges of hunger, harm avoidance and the need to find a mate can distract us from this info-craving. They focused on the brain's visual system but the belief is that similar mechanism may be involved in other senses as well (similar gradient has been observed in auditory system).

It has been found that areas in the brain involved in processing of visual information contain mu-opioid receptors which are generally localized to parts of the central nervous system that are implicated in modulation of pain and reward (same receptors which bind morphine-like substances). What is especially intriguing is that those receptors are distributed in a gradient which gradually increases in density. The receptors are sparsest in the early stages of the visual pathway (where image is processed as local bits of contour, color, and texture), present in greater numbers in the intermediate stages of visual processing (which intergrate local information to detect surfaces, objects, faces, places) and are the densest in the later stages of recognition where visual information engages our memories (the so called association area).

The association areas are repositories for both semantic memories (facts and concepts) and eposodic memories (autobiographical experiences, time, place, emotions associated with the event) and are activated when the brain tries to interpret what it's seeing and hearing.

If a stimulus contains a great deal of interpretable information - it leads to more neural activity, greater release of endomorphins and increased stimulation of mu-opioid receptors. As more opioid receptors are stimulated there is a boost in the pleasant effects.

So, for example, a visual stimulus that elicits many episodic or semantic memories is more pleasing than a stimulus that brings forth fewer mental associations. Also, they said that an initial presentation of a stimulus pattern activates a larger population of neurons which is why humans prefer novelty (greater pleasure experienced on first seeing a movie ect). In essence, humans have a preference for experiences which are both novel and richly interpretable.

It looks like the brain has information-aquisition mechanisms that reward us for learning. The article emphasized that perceptual preferences arise from the connections the brain makes with stored information. In other words, it is the interpretation of a visual pattern, when we make sense of it, that leads to the greatest feelings of pleasure.

When one struggles to comprehend a new idea, there is increased pleasure with repeated exposure, which peaks at the point of comprehension, after which, the preference declines. This can be observed in children who often wish to hear the same story over and over, even to the point of having it memorized but when questioned they often reveal lack of comprehension. It is only after a child fully understands the point of the story that he tires of hearing it again.

This also suggest that there is a preferred rate of presenting information that may correspond to the release of endomorphins. This is nothing new, we experience an aversion to perceptual inputs that are presented much more slowly than the rate of comprehension.

So good news, we are biologically inclined to love learning - it just has to be done in a right way.

Very cool!

Well, we have no basic need for mates (though it is preferable), but harm avoidance and hunger are basic needs. It is understandable to be distracted from knowledge seeking to see to them, as knowledge is useless to those that don't see to those needs. Assuming we have the knowledge to see to those needs that is. Otherwise we need to seek that before we see to those needs, no matter how strong they are at the time.

I know I love learning. It has something to with my choice to live, to think, to follow reason I think. The endorphins would help as well I suppose. But I love learning not just for the pleasure, which I do get and now understand the biology of, but because I want to better myself so that I can reach new heights.

I like this a lot. Thanks for sharing it. It seems to ring very true in my experience. Perhaps a persons intelligence could have something to do with the amount of pleasure they derive from learning. More intelligent people derive more pleasure from learning and so they continue to learn more and more. Over time they are just smarter than the people who don't derive as much pleasure from learning.

Not just that, but the more rational a person the more the pleasure I would say.

What is interesting to me is, is there any correlation with the type of information? I'm just thinking about what mechanisms in the brain will ultimately be linked to volition. Or is any information cause hte same response???

I would say that the more interesting the information is to us the more pleasure we derive from it. Human pleasure is, after all, linked to our volition not just our biology.

They used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) which measures the flow of blood to the brain with a precision of a few millimeters, allowing scientists to identify regions which are using significant amounts of oxygen - a measure of neural activity.

That is quite precise. I am glad that, as this proves, biology had yet to deteriate as badly as other sciences.

Are you able to tell me which scientist(s) conducted this research and where I might be able to find any information on any other similar findings that they might have released?

I would like the same information.

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DM, can you do us all a favour? If you are going to quote larger posts like the original one can you summarise it in some way something like this:

Today, on my lunch break, I read an article (American Scientist, May-June 2006) which attempted to explain why we get a kick out of learning something new - why we have an appetite for knowledge.

......

So good news, we are biologically inclined to love learning - it just has to be done in a right way.

Very cool!

And maybe indicate which post it is. Its not that pleasent having to scroll past all that when theres no need for it all to be repeated in the first place. No big deal I know.

Not just that, but the more rational a person the more the pleasure I would say.

Well, he certaintly gets a lot more pleasure as the end results of his greater success rate. I am not sure if being rational would result in more endomorphins being released though,, although perhaps, and it is an interesting thing to consider.

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Here is the link to the abstract of the article. Abstract

Thanks for that.

I see, one of those involved is: Irving Biederman is the Harold W. Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience in the Departments of Psychology and Computer Science and the director of the Image Understanding Laboratory at the University of Southern California. Wow that is neat, and an interesting combination of departments.

If anyone is interested, here is Irvings Homepag and her is that of the other guy if you want to judge if their other research is of any merit, I am still looking into this myself.

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Not odd at all really, t hough you might think so, and it actually makes sense to study them both as they are related in many ways, ie mainly in AI research/development.

Psychology and computer science not an odd combination? A comination that makes sense and is related? Care to explain that?

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Psychology and computer science not an odd combination? A comination that makes sense and is related? Care to explain that?

Ok..if you want to create AI...the easiest thing to do is first to understand the human mind, meaning not only do you now need Computer Science, but neuroscience(The scientific disciplines concerned with the development, structure, function, chemistry, pharmacology, clinical assessments and pathology of the nervous system.), so that you understand how the human brain/nervous system works so that you can mimic, but A LOT of other things about the brain, such as what Sophie has talked about here.

Then there is the theory some hold that we can learn about our own brains by studying how a computer might manage to do the same things our brains might.

Edited by Prometheus98876
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Ok..if you want to create AI...the easiest thing to do is first to understand the human mind, meaning not only do you now need Computer Science, but neuroscience(The scientific disciplines concerned with the development, structure, function, chemistry, pharmacology, clinical assessments and pathology of the nervous system.), so that you understand how the human brain/nervous system works so that you can mimic, but A LOT of other things about the brain, such as what Sophie has talked about here.

Then there is the theory some hold that we can learn about our own brains by studying how a computer might manage to do the same things our brains might.

Oh, I understand now. Oh, and I know what neuroscience is.

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  • 2 weeks later...

This is interesting science, The only thing I don't like is they way it is presented, suggesting that we seek to acquire knowledge in order to get this pleasure sensation, instead of getting the pleasure senstation because we have understood something new that we have come to value. I wrote this blog on it...

On the Autodidactic list I am a member of I came across this article:

'Thirst for knowledge' may be opium craving

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/200...sc-fk062006.php

This conception is a blatant reversal of cause and effect. Your brain does not give you an opium dose so that you will learn things, if that were true than all people everywhere would immediately become compulsive autodidactics, everyone compelled irrevocably to achieve, attain, and understand, and we would all be living indefinite life spans all ready and spreading among the starts because of the collective achievements of all these great, but right now idle, minds. The billions of man hours spent watching reality TV shows and bimbo heiresses clearly suggests otherwise.

The obvious flaw to me in this article is that the gestalts that produce this effect can only occur with things that have a significant meaning to the person who learns them. I could spend my whole life studying a great puzzle of nature, finally and ecstatically answer it, and get that neural opium shot, and then run through the streets shouting the answer. But even if I took the time to coalesce all the complexities of my discovery into a short conceptual statement, and people got it when I said it to them, they are not rewarded by a neural opium shot as well, even though they have learned a new concept, because they dont care about that concept in the first place, nor place any importance to it. I should think this would be obvious to anyone who spends some time reflecting on it. Its not the grasping of a concept that we are rewarded for, its for answering a question that we have made important to ourselves.

This chemical mind .. body emotion causal reversal is something I find very common, especially in areas pertaining to love, where the tendency that seems at the forefront of academia today is for scientists to act on knowledge only as blocks of perception. Lacking conceptual descriptions of bodies of knowledge, scientists are led to make perceptions, that is observations, into causal proclamations! This is quite simply an abdication of our volition to the forces that guide blind automatons. They do so by making the measurements, and descriptions of affects they discern, into the actual causes of the variables they are measuring.

Consider in addition to this article, Dr. Helen Fishers book Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love where in this review
http://www.firstscience.com/site/articles/love.asp
they specifically sum up Fishers thesis as "...this fire in the mind is caused by elevated levels of either dopamine or norepinephrine or both, as well as decreased levels of serotonin." Note the book is called Why We Love followed by the answer of course, which is The Nature And Chemistry of Romantic Love clearly implying that nature and chemistry are the reasons why we love. It would be more apt to call such a book, if it did not confuse cause and effect, How We Love (That is, how a physical body manifests the emotions of love). Why is the fire in the mind caused by the elevated levels of either dopamine or norepinephrine instead of the elevated levels of dopamine and norepinephrine being caused by the fire in the mind!

When a person who is in love exhibits elevated levels of these opium like drugs, the scientists then interpret that to mean that they are in love because the brain has produced that drug! Which is ridiculous, of course, you do not fall in love because your brain produces a chemical, your brain produces a chemical *because* you fall in love. The difference is superficially subtle, yet vitally important to all of our conceptions of humanity and emotions. It is the difference between being a slave to your emotional whims originated in the mindless mechanistics of your biological chemistry and having your emotions be the logical consequences of the deepest values you choose. It is the difference between being a robotic slave and a thinking, feeling person.

Similarly you do not seek to answer questions because your brain will give you a fix, your brain gives you a fix because you have sought so hard to answer something thats important to you. The pre programmed emotional response is to reward the discovery of hard sought information, but what you seek and whether you seek it at all (since the question must first become important to you) is decided by you, and valued by you.

Your body is a physical entity which exists in the real world and your mind is an intangible pattern that can not be weighed or touched. The latter must then have a physical mechanism by which it can interact with the former, and these mechanisms are primarily hormones and drugs. When you identify values important to you, and integrate them fundamentally into your person through habitualization and repetition, your emotions respond in kind. That is what emotions are in a healthy brain. They are automatic responses to stimuli based on your deeply ingrained fundamental values. The response of your emotions is automatic and instinctual, but what they respond to and why is up to you. Your emotions are a complex neurological and biochemical program, but you decide what variables that program focuses on.

If you value honesty and integrity, and you integrate those values wholly (which necessarily includes becoming an honest person of integrity yourself, since you cant honestly value something you flagrantly violate) and you recognize those virtues in person, your mind responds by rewarding that recognition with a biochemical response that affects both your mind and body. You respect them. And to the extent at which you recognize and value other attributes, and to the extent that they are manifested in another person, you come to respect, admire, cherish, and even love them.

How much of a leap will it be for a society which frequently says no one ever invents anything because they were inclined by society to do so to take these kind of causal reversals and move to all the great inventors and scientist of the world were only ever drug addicts and were addicted to the opium their brain released when they figured something out, the greater the inventor, the worse the addict who lost all control over his own functions and normal humanity The same can and will be said of any great scientist, artist, musician, or poet. Can I help but think that an obvious implication of this is that they are saying the greats of humanity are weird and crazy drug addicts, while the average persons are really healthy and sane. The greats failed and gave in to their cravings, the mediocre and average, were strong and resolute. Of course there is nothing wrong with not wanting to achieve great things, it is after all your own life and you get to live it as you please. But to attack and belittle those who do, who have made all the great things that have made our lives so easy, pleasurable, and enjoyable, and to attribute their accomplishments to anything besides their hard work, dedication, and massive effort is not only beyond outrageous and insulting, it is entirely factually incorrect. Only the post modern scientific nihilist would assert that values are unimportant, that human emotions are deterministic and materialistic, that the great achievers of the world were slaves to cravings, that knowledge has no intrinsic value, and that rational intelligent beings dont seek it because they live on earth and desire to survive and prosper on it, but only to get high.

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Matus, I agree with you that what gives us pleasure is tied to what we choose to value which is further dependent on our accepted life philosophy. When it comes to love, for example, response to your choosen values manifests itself with a certain biochemical effect in your brain, which is pleasurable. Something which is good produces a positive response. Once we experience that elevated feeling we are inclined to seek it again, to repeat the experience. In that way learning (or wanting to be in love or experience orgasm ect) is "encouraged" by our brain chemistry. It does not however dictate to us what we choose to study, what or whom we value, what will be meaningful to us, and thus what stimuli will produce that feeling again for us. It is not deterministic in that way.

What specifically causes such elevated feeling of pleasure will vary from person to person, what is common is that, for all, learning something meaningful will produce this effect, to some degree. What is also common to all is that the system is essentially designed to maximize the rate at which you acquire new but interpretable, understandable information. It makes sense for things to proceed that way - it is cool to find specifically how biologically it is being accomplished.

I consider our volitional capacity, our free will, to be a much stronger force than whatever biological "encouragements" we maybe equiped with. This goes both ways - we are not slaves of our biological urges nor we will always automatically act in our best interest even if biologically encouraged to do so. That is why we do need philosophy to live, it is not a luxury but a requirement.

Edited by ~Sophia~
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