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Neuroscientists Discover “Adventure” Region of the Brain

Posted Oct 03 2008 12:51pm

Here is an interesting article about the part of the brain that encourages seeking out novel experiences. According to the researchers, trying new things is a biological tendency that leads to an evolutionary advantage, and engaging in such behaviors allows for the release of dopamine, which is experienced as a reward. From the article:

When we make a particular choice or carry out a particular action which turns out to be beneficial, it is rewarded by a release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine. These rewards help us learn which behaviours are preferable and advantageous and worth repeating. The ventral striatum is one of the key areas involved in processing rewards in the brain. Although the researchers cannot say definitively from the fMRI scans how novelty seeking is being rewarded, Dr Wittmann believes it is likely to be through dopamine release.

The researchers acknowledge, however, that in humans novelty-seeking can have adverse consequences:

"The novelty bonus may be useful in helping us make complex, uncertain decisions, but it clearly has a downside," says Professor Daw. "In humans, increased novelty-seeking may play a role in gambling and drug addiction, both of which are mediated by malfunctions in dopamine release."

There has been some recent blowback against all these claims by neuroscientists discovering what parts of the brain are “responsible” for various behaviors and experiences, including some good coverage at Mindhacks, as well as this article in Wired. This research is interesting, but it is also in its infancy, and it seems as if people are rushing to claim various findings in a way akin to staking out territory on a new continent (“I hereby declare this part of the brain for Dr. So-and-so!”). That said, there is logic to the idea that taking chances ought to benefit one evolutionarily, as long as it is reasonable. Too chancy, and you won’t survive long enough to procreate. Not chancy enough, and one’s competitors will advance beyond you, and procreate more efficiently.

The problem for humans is that certain types of novelty-seeking, such as those mentioned in the article (i.e. addictive behaviors), are beyond the natural scope of environmental adaptation. That is, humans have evolved to a point where individuals can engage in these behaviors, and yet not suffer any environmental penalty. 10,000 years ago, if a caveman shot up and sat around stoned in the jungle, their bloodline would be extinguished by a predator or some other environmental force (i.e. weather). However, those same threats no longer exist to a significant degree, so excessive novelty-seeking no longer has such adverse consequences. In fact, if my experience with inmates is any guide, a lifestyle of excessive novelty-seeking leads to an increase in modern evolutionary strength, in that they are having more children than the more typical, paint-by-numbers family. The environment no longer negatively impacts excessive novelty-seeking, except for those poor souls who end up on the Darwin Awards List.

Conversely, I wonder about the association between this data and depression and anxiety. Depression, in particular, is associated with anhedonia (the giving up of activities one normally enjoys), and a general lack of activity. Is this same “adventure” area of the brain underactive in those suffering from depression? If so, it would be interesting to examine the link, especially given that depression is as much as 60% due to non-biological factors. Are there certain experiences that stunt this section of the brain, an “environment impacting biology” phenomenon? I suppose only further research could determine this, but there would be a fascinating dissertation topic!

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