Thursday, October 15, 2009

Addicted to information?

Scientific American has this little item: The Chemistry of Information Addiction: A new experiment reveals why we always want to know the answer

Dopamine reward pathways appear to be involved. This ties in with Robert Burton's ideas in his book, On Being Certain. Certainty becomes a rewarded cognitive behaviour, and voilá, becomes an end in itself.

"It has long been thought that there are two levels of decision-making: a conscious level taking place in the cerebral cortex and an unconscious level in the basal ganglia. The story is not so simple, he says, because these two systems are connected via the midbrain dopamine neurons. Perhaps future work will reveal how our conscious and unconscious decisions are influencing one another, all due to this very busy population of dopamine neurons.

It’s often remarked that “ignorance is bliss.” However, when you look at ignorance from the perspective of the brain a very different picture emerges. Our brains, and the brains of other animals, have evolved to find information rewarding. In fact, not knowing is stressful, which is why we strive to decrease that uncertainty whenever possible. We want the information and we want it now!"

So here's a thought, based on something else I read today, Scientists Locate Literacy In The Brain With The Help of Former Colombian Guerrillas, which I think ties in.

(Why they kept referring to the subjects as Guerrillas, instead of referring to them as formerly-illiterate subjects learning to read, I'll never know. Of that I am quite certain.)

Anyway, language is intrinsic. Children left to themselves soon figure out some sort of "language" in which they will be able to communicate. Even deaf children. Such made-up languages will have grammar, structure, meaning, etc.

Reading, on the other hand, is tuition-intensive learned behaviour. It changes the brain. Excerpt:
"Previously, it was thought that the angular gyrus recognised the shapes of words prior to finding their sounds and meanings. In fact, the researchers showed that the angular gyrus is not directly involved in translating visual words into their sounds and meanings. Instead, it supports this process by providing predictions of what the brain is expecting to see."

In lots of other posts here I've taken a close look at this idea, that the brain is a simulator, plays a predictive role based on previous experience. It is the standard science-based working model of the brain.

My thought is, "making stuff up" to satisfy information hungry and addicted pathways, would likely represent the default human capacity.

Science and learning to think scientifically, like acquiring literacy, requires much more input and effort, initially.

However, the acquired skill is self-rewarding, in the same way as reading is.

Reading has become the norm. Like reading, science must be taught, conveyed, and ultimately learned. It's a transmission of "information" between two people, a teacher and a learner, like any sort of information exchange is but more formal - the people are in roles. Effort expended to either learn or teach is considerable.

Something is wrong with how science is taught these days. Perhaps teaching science as a "tool" seems boring and laborious to a child or teen. Perhaps the teachers themselves find it boring to teach science, or can't quite see the point of trying to pound science into what seem like thick heads.

Does anyone else think science could or should be reframed as an exciting, cognitive, future self-rewarding behaviour?

I will lay odds that if teachers took on their task of teaching science as enthusiastically as they take on teaching basic reading, fueled by the same motive, soon there would be a leap forward in percent of population able to steadily access their own information-seeking/gathering reward pathways. New habits of thinking would emerge. Culture would change. There would be no more need in life to support institutions that "make stuff up" just so they can feel they can help people get by - everyone would be interested in investigating the truth as closely as scientifically possible.

Additional Reading:
1. Harriet Hall's review of On Being Certain
2. Ginger Campbell's BrainScience Podcast and shownotes about the book, Episode 42
3. Ginger Campbell's BrainScience Podcast and shownotes, interview with the author, Episode 43.

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