The Pleasure of Utterly Arbitrary Things
Our human existence is wonderfully complicated and our culture is wonderfully complicated by pastimes and ideas and information that are entirely divorced from the evolutionary concerns of getting our genes into the next generation.
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.
For humans and monkeys mere information can be pleasurable, even if that information is not useful in any way, or doesn’t have any adaptive value in and of itself.
So for example, you could set up an experiment where a monkey has a light flash and then the monkey can have a choice of either receiving information about whether a shot of juice is going to come in three seconds, or 10 seconds, or not get the information at all. They always choose to get the information. And then when they get the information, if you are measuring electrical activity in the pleasure center of the brain, you see a burst of activity in the pleasure center when they get that information.
Now, the shot of juice comes at three seconds or 10 seconds regardless of whether they learn about it. But monkeys will always choose to learn about it and they will always feel pleasure as indexed by this brain activity in getting that information even though that information is utterly useless. It can’t guide their behavior. It can’t help them in any way.
If one were to extrapolate, we take pleasure from utterly arbitrary things. We take pleasure from celebrity gossip. We take pleasure from curling. Our human existence is wonderfully complicated and our culture is wonderfully complicated by pastimes and ideas and information that are entirely divorced from the evolutionary concerns of getting our genes into the next generation.
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