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August 25, 2009

Joys of Search vs Finding

Emily Joffe has a top-notch article on the physiological and biochemical differences between searching (which stimulates) and finding (which satisfies).

Searching - Seeking: Stimulation

According to Washington State University neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, the act of Searching stimulates the lateral hypothalamus with the neurotransmitter dopamine. The dopamine circuits "promote states of eagerness and directed purpose," Panksepp writes. It feels so good that we seek out activities, or substances, that keep this system aroused— cocaine and amphetamines are particularly effective at stirring it. Apparently, so is Google.

Panksepp has spent decades mapping the emotional systems of mammals, and he says, "Seeking is the granddaddy of the systems." It's why captive animals prefer to search for their food rather than have it delivered. Dopamine also affects our internal clocks; time moves differently when we're searching. In the natural world, that's OK — but given a laptop we're eerily like the lab rats, continually hitting "search" to get our next dopamine spike.

Finding and Liking: Satisfaction

Kent Berridge, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, describes the "finding/liking" (that is, satisfaction) system as the alternative to the searching-seeking-dopamine complex. When we experience pleasure it is our own opioid system rather than our dopamine system, that is being stimulated. This is why the opiate drugs induce a kind of blissful stupor so different from the animating effect of cocaine and amphetamines.

Lost Symmetry in Stimulation / Satisfaction

Stimulation (Seeking/Searching) and Satisfaction (Finding/Liking) are complementary. The former catalyzes us to action; the latter brings us to a satisfied pause. Our Seeking behavior needs to be shut off, so that the system does not run in an endless loop. When we attain the object of our desire, we engage in consummatory acts that reduce arousal in the brain and temporarily, inhibit our urge to Seek.

Unfortunately, with our laptops and multi-tabbed browsers, our Seeking may not be inhibited and we may continue in an endless loop of Searching. All our devices — e-mail, Facebook, texts, Twitters — are feeding our Dopamine appetite and destroying the Search/Find symmetry. We hear "you've got mail" and we salivate like Pavlov's dog. No wonder we call it a "CrackBerry".

Ms. Joffe closes by suggesting: If humans are seeking machines, we've now created the perfect machines to allow us to seek endlessly. Maybe Google's Search is more addictive than Starbuck's Coffee.

This is a new sort of column by Joffe, and I hope she continues to explore these issues. She's an excellent writer.

The Searching-Stimulation/Seeking-Satisfaction duality seems to cut across several fields. It's Dating-vs-Marriage. Is Divorce the Dopamine reasserting it's influence? Are people who are eager to settle down Opioid-oriented? It's Jobs-vs-Career. Is the midlife crisis Dopamine-driven?

Searching vs Finding ala Hitchcock

What really rocked me about Joffe's article was it's explanation of the beginning sequence of Hitchcock's movie, Rope. The key scene started at about 1:50 (There are some interesting alternative explanations of the opening scene.)

The movie begins just after a murder has been committed by the two dandy antagonists. Phillip wants to sit quietly afterwards (satisfaction), while Brandon wants to move on to the next thrill (search). Given Yoffe's article, it seems that Phillip has an opioid preference, and Brandon is a dopamine guy.

It's curious to think that every time we press the "search" button, we're just like the lab rats pressing a lever for a pellet.

"You've got mail".


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