Cheer up: it might never happen

If you teach a monkey that when you switch a light on, it has to press a lever ten times in order to get food, its Dopamine levels go shooting through the ceiling, not when it gets the food, but when the light goes on. The prospect of pleasure is more exciting than the pleasure itself.

Now, teach a monkey that when you switch a light on, it has to press a lever ten times, and it might get food about 50 per cent of the time. This time, when you turn the light on, its Dopamine levels go shooting through all 102 ceilings (assuming this monkey’s in the Empire State Building).

Bearded biologist Robert Sapolsky says this works in humans too, and that we’re so obsessed with the prospect of possible pleasure (and go binging drinking more copiously on Dopamine as the odds of actually getting the pleasure lengthen) that we no longer care about whether the reward ever comes. Religious people delay the reward until after they’ve died, he points out.

I don’t think monkeys do that, which is a different question but worth mentioning because it reminds my of this little poem by Stevie Smith.

Back at my point, it’s getting scary. You can make your Dopamine levels soar so high they start interfering with giants and golden geese, just by  being promised something sensational which you’re unlikely ever to get. And overactive Dopamine signalling can turn people schizophrenic.

I’m sure you can’t go insane just by betting on a hobbled schnauzer in the Grand National, or praying for heavenly salvation mid-way through a murderous coach tour of Britain’s orphanages (assuming you wre a perfectly sane and balanced child killer on a budget holiday to begin with).

But the principle must hold.

So, here is my Daily Mail-style list of things which probably give you schizophrenia:

Promise rings, Samuel Beckett, test match cricket, queuing, Agas, endangered-species hunting, baggage handlers’ strikes, algebra, barbecues, the post, doughnuts, sticker books, amnesia, space travel, puzzle books, burrowing, the flute, gobstoppers, and puberty.

What else?

~ by David Thorley on March 10, 2011.

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