Sunday, August 16, 2009

Desperately Seeking...

by Libby Hellmann

There was a fascinating article in Slate the other day about why some of us seem to be addicted to Texting, Twitter, and Facebook. (Btw, childrens’ author Laurel Snyder, a self-confessed Twitter addict, describes in Salon what it’s like to go cold turkey.) Without getting into too much detail, especially since my science proficiency is shaky, the article says the addiction exists and there’s a reason for it: our brains are hard-wired to crave the interaction.

But here’s where it gets interesting.

Apparently, we’re not Twittering and Texting and FB-ing because it gives us pleasure, or calms us, or in some way pacifies us. Just the opposite.

Remember the tests they did on all those rats, when they discovered they could train them to push a lever repetitively, until they collapsed, just so they could get a tiny release of dopamine? At the time they thought dopamine was a brain chemical that dispensed some kind of happy pill, that it was in charge of the pleasure center in the brain.

Then one of the scientists, Jaak Panksepp, changed his mind.

"Those self-stimulating rats, and later those humans, did not exhibit the euphoric satisfaction of creatures eating Double Stuf Oreos or repeatedly having orgasms. The animals, he writes... were 'excessively excited, even crazed.' The rats were in a constant state of sniffing and foraging.

It is an emotional state Panksepp tried many names for: curiosity, interest, foraging, anticipation, craving, expectancy. He finally settled on seeking. ..'Seeking is the granddaddy of the systems.' It is the mammalian motivational engine that each day gets us out of the bed, or den, or hole to venture forth into the world…. For humans, this desire to search is not just about fulfilling our physical needs. Panksepp says that humans can get just as excited about abstract rewards as tangible ones. He says that when we get thrilled about the world of ideas, about making intellectual connections, about divining meaning, it is the seeking circuits that are firing… 'the dopamine circuits promote states of eagerness and directed purpose,' Panksepp writes. It's a state humans love to be in.'”

So we seek. That’s why some of us constantly check Twitter, emails, and Facebook. The dopamine makes us do it.

But what does this have to do with writing?

Last time I blogged I talked about hating to write. How unequal to the task I usually feel. As I read about "seeking", I kept thinking that writing is a form of seeking. We’re always seeking the perfect prose, the most genuine characters, the most compelling plots. I wonder if people like me – who find those tasks difficult -- are deficient in dopamine, while those of you who absolutely revel in the process, who say you're addicted to writing, have more of it than you need. You seek, you get dopamine, you keep going. I seek, I don’t get dopamine-- or enough of it-- I struggle.

OK, admittedly, it’s a little far out. I may be trying to rationalize something because I like to whine. And bear in mind at the end of the process, when I’ve finally finished a book or story, I do feel pleasure. It could be the opiates kicking in, the brain neurotransmitters scientists say actually are responsible for pleasure. The joy of finishing a tough job. Or not.

Either way, I think it’s an interesting theory. Check out the article. And then tell me what you think.


David Heinzmann said...

I feel like writing and twittering are at opposite ends of the spectrum of expression. Whether you find pleaure in it or not, writing fiction is a process of discovery and creation. And twittering seems like an act without any process at all. It's just compulsion and reaction.

celeste balducci said...

The reason why we text and tweet and FB and talk to the guy in the deli (who knows our daily order) is because All Relationships Matter even the ones beyond close family and friends. Best selling author Melinda Blau has a great new book out this week called Consequential Strangers and will let everyone know that we feel healthy when we are part of the world - offline and online.

Sara Paretsky said...

I think it's febrile, like all addictions I've ever experienced--not productive, not going anywhere. I liked Laura's description of trying to shut off e-mail twitching--which I do, and which completely breaks up my focus on story. I don't really feel connected to people via the web--maybe because I'm alone too much and I need more real-life people in my life. Today's NY Times has an article about how when you're stressed you get into a rut and keep repeating activities that actually shrink the creative part of your brain--for me relentless email, twitting & net surfing do that, but i find it hard to stop

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