ART & ORGANISM
WE ARE VORACIOUS in our pursuit of knowledge and can be deeply pleased by obtaining it –
– Irving Biederman and Edward Vessel (2006) called us “INFOVORES”. The term offered was to characterize our pursuit of information. We are more-or-less urgently motivated to acquire information. They based this proposal on evidence that as with other motivations, pursuing it is pleasurable. “They claim that the neural pathways through which we learn about the world tap into the same pleasure networks in the brain as are activated by drugs like heroin. They say that, for humans, only the basic urges of hunger, harm avoidance and the need to find a mate can distract us from this info-craving
(p 247 in: Biederman, Irving & Vessel, Edward A. (2006) Perceptual Pleasure and the Brain. American Scientist. 94(3), 247-253. [PDF] http://cvcl.mit.edu/SUNSeminar/biederman_vessel_amsci06.pdf)
How does information give people a high? a pleasant sense of lightness ? A sense of tension resolved ? The key is a type of chemical receptor known as a mu-opioid receptor, which is found on the surface of some brain cells. Like other opioid receptors, it is activated by heroin, morphine or naturally produced substances called endorphins, and is found in areas of the brain that mediate pain and pleasure. Mu-opioid receptors are also found in areas that process sensory information and memories. They occur in increasing numbers along the neural pathways in these areas, from the early stages where the brain processes basic things like colour to the later stages of conscious recognition.
Areas that become active when the brain is trying to interpret the information can be identified “…whether that is an image of an object, or words on a page, or the song of a bird. Biederman and Vessel suggest that when this happens, the endorphins that stimulate mu-opioid receptors are released, causing a feeling of pleasure. What’s more, because the number of mu-opioid receptors increases further along the neural processing pathway, information that triggers the most memories and conveys the most meaning to a person causes the greatest pleasure response. –New Scientist Magazine issue , published 22 July 2006 [link]
EXCERPT: “After millennia of experimentation, it’s quite obvious that opiates alter the brain’s activity, but it wasn’t until the early 1970s that scientists understood why this is so. In 1972, Solomon Snyder and Candace Pert, at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, discovered that opiates target certain molecular receptors located on the surfaces of brain cells. When opiates bind to these opioid receptors, they modulate the activity of the cells. Neurobiologists have since described at least three major subtypes of opioid receptors, identified by the Greek letters mu, delta and kappa. The mu-opioid receptors readily bind morphine, and are also activated by endogenous morphine-like substances. In 1997 these endomorphins were isolated in brain tissue by scientists at Tulane University School of Medicine. Not surprisingly, mu-opioid receptors are generally localized to parts of the central nervous system that are implicated in the modulation of pain and reward. In the early 1980s, however, Michael Lewis at the National Institute of Mental Health and his colleagues discovered these receptors in a part of the macaque monkey cerebral cortex that is involved in processing visual information. What’s especially intriguing is their finding that the receptors are distributed in a gradient that gradually increases in density along the so-called ventral visual pathway, which is involved in the recognition of an object or a scene. Subsequent work has found evidence for a similar gradient in the homologous human areas. The receptors are sparsest in the early stages of this pathway, the so-called V1 to V4 areas, where an image is processed as local bits of contour, color and texture. Intermediate stages of visual processing such as the lateral occipital area and ventral occipitotemporal cortex, which integrate local information to detect surfaces, objects, faces and places, contain greater numbers of opioid receptors. The receptors are densest in the later stages of recognition, in the parahippocampal cortex and rhinal cortex, where visual information engages our memories.” Read Biederman & Vessel’s (2006) entire essay