Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Our Brains are Wired for Seeking

I love this article on seeking from Slate magazine, I think it is one of those ideas that can help you gain a new perspective on human behavior (including your own). The article describes how the act of seeking is hardwired into our brains as an end to itself. The article then goes on to describe why this brain circuitry can be overactivated by Google, Blackberry and other common technologies

J.D Meier gives a great synopsis of the article in his post, Seeking is the Granddaddy of Emotional Systems. He boils the article down to five bullet points:

  • You can’t stop doing it.   You have an insatiable need to search.  It’s stronger than the basic drives for food, sex, and sleep.  We’ll even seek at our own expense.
  • Seeking is the granddaddy of the systems.   “Seeking” is the master emotional system that influences the rest of our emotional systems.
  • Each stimulation evokes a reinvigorated search strategy.  It’s self-reinforcing.  Stimulating the lateral hypothalamus puts mammals in a loop of foraging, excitement, and craze.
  • Seeking is the motivational engine that gets us out of bed.  “Seeking” is the natural drive that motivates us each day.
  • Abstract rewards excite us as much as tangible one.  Our “Seeking” circuits are the ones firing when we get thrilled about the ideas or make intellectual connections.

The word seeking is overloaded with meaning, so it took me some thinking to parse out what the article means to me. I don’t think it means people are seekers in the sense of seeking philosophical enlightenment, or amazing impactful results, or even new meaningful knowledge. Some people are, but that’s not the norm.  The people who do amazing things have channeled their base-level seeking to achieve more powerful results, plus they have the innate capabilities that allow them to get those results. As a species we are seekers for tidbits, like mice searching for nuggets of food. The base level seeking impulse is very simple. Search for something that fulfills a simple need (food, shelter, comfort, etc). Its the searching for something that matters. The acquisition matters less and wears off quickly. Then we are off to seek again.

Its the happiness conundrum. You think you will be happy if you get X. Where X could be money, partner, knowledge, results, reputation, house, status, etc. But this is where we are tricked by our own biology. We are not meant to be happy or satisfied for extended periods of time. We are restless creatures and our biology gives us the happiness ‘high’ for a small amount of time and takes it away. We go back to seeking. If we were truly happy and satisfied we would stop seeking and evolutionarily that is a very bad thing.

We think happiness is good, therefore we seek it (its a meta-search if you will :)). But the search for happiness is endless and we will never truly reach the goal. So what are we to do? I think there are two choices, not necessarily mutually exclusive. While its cliche, I think we can choose to enjoy the journey - the seeking - as much as possible. If you consciously realize you are seeking and are ok with that, not fooled into thinking this search will end your constant seeking, then I think you can choose to enjoy it for what it is. The other choice is to try to make a conscious decision to be satisfied. I think satisfaction means you are happy with what you have and what you are. You can rest for a while and maybe stop seeking. Careful though - stay satisfied too long and you may become like the little creatures in H.G Well’s “The Time Machine” who have evolved into a state of feeble satisfaction due to having conquered all possible challenges in their environment.


J.D. Meier said...

Great post and I like your elaboration and details, as well as your personal story.

Seeking is a topic I know I'll be exploring (or seeking) quite a bit. I think it's a powerful lens for behavior.

marion said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



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