“Learning and addiction are very tightly bound together,” says Kent Berridge, a prominent neuroscientist at the University of Michigan. “So tightly that they sort of merge.”
Frank Rose’s book The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation Is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories examines new media from a few different angles, but no insight is more significant than the one above. To understand why, I need to go a little deeper into his book:
There are two very different ways of acquiring knowledge — one conscious and deliberate, the other not. Cognition is the conscious form. It’s related to episodic memory, which is the recollection of what happens in your life (what did I do last night?), as well as to semantic memory, which is all about facts and figures (what is the capital of France?). […] The type of learning [The Iowa Gambling Study] revealed, on the other hand, has to do with procedural memory (how to ride a bike, how to play the piano ). It’s learning through repetition, with the brain’s reward system as a mediator.
By way of a study of individuals playing the video game Battlezone, Rose demonstrates that video games and gambling can trigger the release of dopamine, or he puts it here, “the brain’s reward system.”
“The dopamine system operates below the cortex,” says Berridge. “It’s activated by simple Pavlovian learning, not so much by cognitive understanding.” Think of it as an extremely sophisticated pattern recognition system that functions beneath the level of conscious thought. We’re able to act on it, but if we experience any knowledge of the patterns it recognizes, it comes to us as a feeling, a hunch, rather than anything we can explain. This is learning as an emotional response — one that has nothing to do with logic or reason or linear thought. Which is what makes it so powerful.
“Without logic or reason or linear thought” - it’s no surprise that earlier in his book, Rose quotes film director David Lynch, one of the few American directors that have forged a notable career while regularly violating the laws of filmmaking and linearity:
“Ideas are everywhere. You get ideas all day long, and once in a while you get an idea you fall in love with. That’s a beautiful day. But you never get the whole thing at once. You get it in fragments. So many nonlinear things are happening in a day. We’ve got this thing called memories, and a picture forms from memories or from imaginary things. An idea can be conjured up by a little something you saw in Northern Ireland, and it swims in right next to something that’s on the floor in front of you. The flow of all different kinds of things— if you were to put that together, it would be like a crazy film.”
The unexpected juxtapositions, the startling elisions, the scenes out of sequence— asleep or awake, this is how we think, in a fast-dissipating vapor. Certainly it’s the way we think now, and hypertext makes for both a convenient metaphor and a convenient scapegoat.
We navigate through the World Wide Web primarily though hypertext links. The process of discovery becomes addictive. Just like in film, the most important part is the unexpected surprise:
“If you measure dopamine while an animal is searching, it’s very high,” LeDoux said later, over lunch at a lower Manhattan café. “But when they find something and consume it, dopamine doesn’t register . It’s more in the seeking than in the attainment of the goal.” If anticipation is so often sweeter than success, dopamine would seem to be the reason why. This is clearly by nature’s design. If the dopamine system is going to motivate us, it needs to keep us focused on whatever will produce the reward. The promise of reward is why we keep going. But rewards can come in different ways. They can come in a predictable fashion—in which case we quickly lose interest. They can come randomly. Or they can come in a way that’s neither entirely predictable nor totally random, but somewhere in between. As a motivator, it turns out, this last pattern is more powerful than any other - so powerful that the pattern can become more important than the reward.
Hence all sorts of non-chemical addictions, like gambling, television, video games, and the internet.
The pursuit and the experience can be just as important as the story.