David J. Linden is a Professor in the Department of Neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. His laboratory has worked for many years on the cellular substrates of memory storage in the brain and a few other topics. He has a longstanding interest in scientific communication and serves as the Chief Editor of the Journal of Neurophysiology. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland with his two children.
David is the author of The Accidental Mind: How Brain Evolution Has Given Us Love, Memory, Dreams and God and most recently, The Compass of Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Fatty Foods, Orgasm, Exercise, Marijuana, Generosity, Vodka, Learning, and Gambling Feel So Good.
David Linden: It turns out that we humans are hardwired to get a pleasure buzz from uncertainty. You might think that when you gamble, you only see the pleasure circuit of the brain activated when you win. And that’s not true. So imagine if we have you in a brain scanner, and we’ve got a little video roulette wheel up on the screen. And it spins, and then the ball falls into the roulette wheel slot, and you win or you lose.
Well, it turns out that if we image your brain in that interval that while the ball is spinning on the roulette wheel, you have increasing activation of your pleasure circuit. You’re not just getting pleasure when you win; you’re actually getting a pleasure buzz during that period of uncertainty.
Now, I think that has a real important implication for email, text messaging, instant messaging and Twitter. So what happens? You’re walking down the street, your phone buzzes or beeps in your pocket. You pull it out. You look on your Smart Phone and you’ve got a message and then you get to read it. Well, the buzz in your pocket is signaling you’re going to get information pretty soon. You don’t know what it is, but you’re going to get it. And I think if we had you in a brain scanner during the time when you’re getting that out of your pocket and you’re opening up your phone and you’re getting to look at… we would see that same slow mounting activation of your pleasure circuitry that we see while the ball was spinning in the roulette wheel. And then depending on what the message is, well, that might be either pleasurable or not pleasurable depending on the content of the message.
But I think uncertainty and our predisposition for liking it is central to the addictive, pleasurable quality of modern electronic messaging.
Directed by Jonathan Fowler
Produced by Elizabeth Rodd