Happy – or Just Hyper?

December 30, 2009 at 6:06 am Leave a comment

It annoys me when someone sees a spastically out of control dog and gushes about how “happy” he looks. I’ve always suspected that this kind of hyperactive, mindless behavior didn’t represent happiness and now it looks like science is there to back me up.

A recent article in Slate Magazine on our growing obsession with the internet provides insights on the important difference between happy and hyper — and why it’s important to find a balance between the two.

Way back in the dawn of cognitive science (1954), psychologist James Olds made a fortuitous mistake when he stuck an electrode in the wrong part of a lab rat’s brain. Olds and his team were surprised to discover that after they applied a low voltage current to the electrode, the rat became obsessed with getting more shocks to his brain.

Slate’s Emily Yoffe writes:

Olds eventually discovered that if the probe was put in the brain’s lateral hypothalamus and the rats were allowed to press a lever and stimulate their own electrodes, they would press until they collapsed.

Olds, and everyone else, assumed he’d found the brain’s pleasure center (some scientists still think so). Later experiments done on humans confirmed that people will neglect almost everything—their personal hygiene, their family commitments—in order to keep getting that buzz.

While others were convinced that Olds had inadvertently found the brain’s pleasure center, Estonian affective neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp wasn’t convinced. Panksepp noticed that when their hypothalmi were stimulated the rats didn’t look like they were experiencing bliss. Instead of ecstatic, he described the rats’ behavior as “excessively excited, even crazed.”

After Panksepp’s work convinced him that the region in question was not the pleasure center, he knew he needed a new name for it. After much debate he settled on the term “seeking”.

Panksepp has spent decades mapping the emotional systems of the brain he believes are shared by all mammals, and he says, “Seeking is the granddaddy of the systems.” It is the mammalian motivational engine that each day gets us out of the bed, or den, or hole to venture forth into the world. It’s why, as animal scientist Temple Grandin writes in Animals Make Us Human, experiments show that animals in captivity would prefer to have to search for their food than to have it delivered to them.

Dopamine drives the seeking system. When they’re aroused, the dopamine circuits in our brains put us in the seeking state where we feel eager and aroused. The sense of arousal makes us want more and drives us to find more stimulation to keep pumping dopamine into our brains.

Professor Kent Berridge from the University of Michigan has also done a lot of research on the ‘pleasure center’ and, like Panksepp, has come to the conclusion that Olds didn’t find it.  In fact, Berridge’s work has identified two different feedback systems in the brain: “wanting” and “liking”.  Wanting is another name for Panksepp’s seeking system, and it arises in the same part of the brain activated by stimulant drugs like cocaine and amphetamines. Berridge believes that the liking system, which is stimulated by the same areas as opiate drugs, is the brain’s pleasure center.

Wanting and liking work together to control our mammalian sense of motivation. Wanting inspires us to act and liking creates a sense of fulfillment or consummation that lets us stop seeking. If liking wasn’t around to shut off seeking, we’d seek obsessively until we died. These kinds of responses are highly maladaptive.

But our brains are designed to more easily be stimulated than satisfied. “The brain seems to be more stingy with mechanisms for pleasure than for desire,” Berridge has said. This makes evolutionary sense. Creatures that lack motivation, that find it easy to slip into oblivious rapture, are likely to lead short (if happy) lives. So nature imbued us with an unquenchable drive to discover, to explore.

When the wanting/seeking and liking circuits fall out of balance, bad things happen. When the seeking circuit is cut off by destroying dopamine receptors, laboratory animals starve themselves to death because they’ve lost all desire to satiate themselves with food. When their seeking circuits are overloaded by flooding their brains with dopamine, animals seek madly for food, but get no pleasure from eating it.

Our brains don’t just seek concrete things like food and sex. Mammals seek novelty because bursts of dopamine are emitted in the wake of unexpected rewards. They also seek information, though some kinds of information appear to affect the system more intensely than others.

The system is also activated by particular types of cues that a reward is coming. In order to have the maximum effect, the cues should be small, discrete, specific—like the bell Pavlov rang for his dogs. Panksepp says a way to drive animals into a frenzy is to give them only tiny bits of food: This simultaneously stimulating and unsatisfying tease sends the seeking system into hyperactivity. Berridge says the “ding” announcing a new e-mail or the vibration that signals the arrival of a text message serves as a reward cue for us. And when we respond, we get a little piece of news (Twitter, anyone?), making us want more. These information nuggets may be as uniquely potent for humans as a Froot Loop to a rat. When you give a rat a minuscule dose of sugar, it engenders “a panting appetite,” Berridge says—a powerful and not necessarily pleasant state.

And so at last we come back to that hyperactive, treat- or toy-obsessed dog. Over-treating, over-rewarding, over-luring and over-cuing dogs is a disturbingly common mistake in dog training today. As trainers become obsessed with “dog-friendly” training methods and keeping dogs in a constant state of happiness, they seem to have forgotten the importance of balance.

Healthy, intelligent animals need to move back and forth between the pleasure states of seeking and liking.  The yang of seeking must be balanced by the yin of wanting or the mind will spin out of control in dysfunctional feedback loops of dissatisfaction or obsession instead of being fulfilled by the strong, intrinsic rewards of fulfillment.

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