May 26th, 2010


'Thirst for knowledge' may be opium craving

Neuroscientists have proposed a simple explanation for the pleasure of grasping a new concept: The brain is getting its fix.

The "click" of comprehension triggers a biochemical cascade that rewards the brain with a shot of natural opium-like substances, said Irving Biederman of the University of Southern California. He presents his theory in an invited article in the latest issue of American Scientist.

"While you're trying to understand a difficult theorem, it's not fun," said Biederman, professor of neuroscience in the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

"But once you get it, you just feel fabulous."

The brain's craving for a fix motivates humans to maximize the rate at which they absorb knowledge, he said.

"I think we're exquisitely tuned to this as if we're junkies, second by second."

Biederman hypothesized that knowledge addiction has strong evolutionary value because mate selection correlates closely with perceived intelligence.

Only more pressing material needs, such as hunger, can suspend the quest for knowledge, he added.

The same mechanism is involved in the aesthetic experience, Biederman said, providing a neurological explanation for the pleasure we derive from art.

"This account may provide a plausible and very simple mechanism for aesthetic and perceptual and cognitive curiosity."

Posted via web from crasch's posterous


Equality Is Important—But It Isn't Enough

Black people often make bad decisions about their health. For instance, a slightly higher percentage of black men than white men smoke, despite the fact that black men are 34 percent more likely to get lung cancer. Most black women weigh too much: According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Minority Health, "African-American women have the highest rates of being overweight or obese compared to other groups in the U.S. About four out of five African-American women are overweight or obese."

Black men are 30 percent more likely to die from heart disease than non-Hispanic white men, and they contract AIDS more than seven times as often. Black women are 2.5 times as likely to start prenatal care in the third trimester, or not to start it at all. As a group, African-Americans are 50 percent less likely to exercise. The death rate for African-Americans is higher than whites for heart diseases, stroke, diabetes, and homicide.

All of this imposes immense costs on society.

By now it should be clear that simply trying to educate black people is not enough. Therefore, the United States needs a multi-pronged, coordinated effort aimed at forcing black people to make better choices. African-Americans should be required to pay higher taxes for unhealthy foods. They should be encouraged, if not required, to engage in regular exercise. Cass Sunstein, President Obama's regulatory czar, has proposed in his book Nudge a system of "libertarian paternalism" through which government incentives could encourage people to make the right choices. We should do this with black people by, for example, charging them more for snack foods, cigarettes, and other unhealthy products.

Not really, of course. No one should seriously make such a condescending and paternalistic argument. And anyone who did should be denounced as a bigot of the first order.

What's interesting, though, is that many progressives think nothing of making the very same argument about Americans generally. With more and more frequency we are told Americans' poor choices about their own health lead to higher costs for everybody -- so the government must act. Hence the campaign against obesity. Hence proliferating proposals for higher taxes on soft drinks. Hence the drive to have the FDA regulate Americans' salt intake. And so on.

Posted via web from crasch's posterous