The Social Animal by David Brooks

The Social Animal by David Brooks

Author:David Brooks [Brooks, David]
Language: eng
Format: epub, mobi
ISBN: 978-0-679-60393-1
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Published: 2011-03-07T16:00:00+00:00

The Urge to Merge

Wolfram Schultz is a neuroscientist at Cambridge University who did research on monkeys in hopes of understanding Parkinson’s disease. He would squirt apple juice in their mouths and observe a little surge in the dopamine neurons in their brains. After a few squirts, he noticed that the dopamine neurons began to fire just before the juice arrived. He set up an experiment in which he sounded a tone and then delivered the juice. After just a few rounds, the monkeys figured out that the tone preceded the juice. Their neurons begin to fire at the sound of the tone, not with the delivery of the juice. Schultz and his colleagues were baffled. Why didn’t these neurons simply respond to the actual reward, the juice?

A crucial answer came from Read Montague, Peter Dayan, and Terrence Sejnowski. The mental system is geared more toward predicting rewards than in the rewards themselves. The mind creates predictive models all day long—for example, that tone will lead to this juice. When one of the models accurately anticipates reality, then the mind experiences a little surge of reward, or at least a reassuring feeling of tranquility. When the model contradicts reality, then there’s tension and concern.

The main business of the brain is modeling, Montague argues. We are continually constructing little anticipatory patterns in our brain to help us predict the future: If I put my hand here, then this will happen. If I smile, then she’ll smile. If our model meshes with what actually happens, we experience a little drip of sweet affirmation. If it doesn’t, then there’s a problem, and the brain has to learn what the glitch is and adjust the model.

This function is one of the fundamental structures of desire. As we go through our days, the mind generates anticipatory patterns, based on the working models stored inside it. Often there’s tension between the inner models and the outer world. So we try to come up with concepts that will help us understand the world, or changes in behavior that will help us live in harmony with it. When we grasp some situation, or master some task, there’s a surge of pleasure. It’s not living in perpetual harmony that produces the surge. If that were so, we’d be happy living on the beach all our lives. It’s the moment when some tension is erased. So a happy life has its recurring set of rhythms: difficulty to harmony, difficulty to harmony. And it is all propelled by the desire for limerence, the desire for the moment when the inner and outer patterns mesh.

This yearning for harmony, or limerence, can manifest itself in small mundane ways. People experience a small spark of pleasure when they solve a crossword puzzle or when they sit down and find a perfectly set table that meets their standard of “just so.”

The desire for limerence can also manifest itself in odd ways. People are instinctively drawn to the familiar. For example, Brett Pelham of the State University


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