Hardwired to Seek, Search, Hunt

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78761369CJ002_Websites_reflFlea markets, casinos, bars, and the internet search engine all tap into what Emily Yoffe of Slate Magazine calls the 'human motivation to seek'. Studies done on lab rats and humans revealed an area of the brain called the 'seeking center' and that we are driven to search as a reward in itself.

Yoffe spoke with guest host Andrea Bernstein on The Brian Lehrer Show. An excerpt of the interview:

Andrea Bernstein: So there is this incredible human motivation just to search or to seek or to hunt?

Emily Yoffee: The brain is over-wired for this, seeking, curiosity, exploration...If you think of it in evolutionary terms, it all makes sense. If you have a creature that is very easy satisfied and is just sitting there being happy, it’s probably going to be eaten pretty quickly. We are strongly, strongly motivated to get out of our beds, our dens, our holes and go out and seek and search.

Bernstein: Is that is what is happening when you are reading a mystery or a thriller? You love the hunt and maybe why you feel a little let down when you get to the end?

Yoffe: Yes, this is why flea markets are so great, gambling, going to pick up bars. It is not that we don’t feel the reward, but the reward only lasts a little bit of time and then the seeking urge is renewed again. It’s not just that we are compelled to seek to in order to get the reward to feel good. Seeking, wanting, feels good itself...It feels great to be in that aroused, excited state. Drugs, like amphetamines, and cocaine stimulate that system. It’s the dopamine system. It feels good to be excited. It feels good to feel “I can do anything.”

Bernstein: Is Googling really changing anything or is it just helping us do what we would do anyway?

Yoffe: Googling, and all our electronic devices that help us search or find or get constant tweet updates from people, it hasn’t created a new sensation in the brain.

'If humans are seeking creatures, we have now created the perfect seeking machines.'

The dopamine system is the neurotransmitter for the seeking system, it is also believed that it controls our sense of time. That is why you can sit down to find one thing and you find it is an hour later. Where did that hour go?

Bernstein: Do you think Google is fundamentally altering, and maybe in a bad way, the way people behave?

Yoffe: A way to drive lab animals into a complete frenzy is to give them a little tiny award: you give a rat one fruit loop. They start to go nuts. They behave in all sorts of crazy, compulsive ways, looking for, searching for, a greater reward. I think in a way, Twitter and all the text, this almost bizarre compulsion to update to update to update, because we know we can get a new Twitter, new text. We’re like Pavlov’s dogs. We are getting a signal that a reward is coming. It is this endlessly renewed loop.

Bernstein: Is Google making us stupid?

Yoffe: No, I don’t think we'e getting stupider...You used to, at the end of the day, have a good book on your night table, you used to look forward to sinking into the book…now reading books is much harder because we are so easily distracted. The Google-inking-searching phenomena which we're constantly renewing has made us feel that any long sustained thing is not rewarding. I want my seeking circuits stimulated...It is much harder to sustain attention. It doesn’t mean we are not buying books...I used to feel like if I started a book, I had to finish it, I don’t feel that way any more.

Listen to the entire Brian Lehrer Show interview: