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Are we addicts?


Kain rising
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Here's a quote form the article:

 

Some evidence exists that games stimulate the same areas in the brain as alcohol and other drugs, psychologists, sociologists and others were told at the world's first interdisciplinary games conference here.

 

I'm going to go out o a limb here, I apologize if this post goes far afield. I would bet a small amount of money that the parts of the brain that they are talking about are also 'stimulated' but such things as music, TV, movies, sex, laughter, and even a good book.

 

I've had a pet theory for some time that human beings spend a good amount of time going out of their way to trigger these parts of the brain, parts that can produce mild forms of euphoria. I suspect that a lot of entertainment is really, at a basic level, about altering the chemistry in certain brain areas, this in turn makes you feel good. In a way this is a very conventional thought, as anything we do has some effect on the brain. But I think certain activities are very specifically designed to stimulate areas that bring pleasure, or at least alter brain states in a direction that we simply can't get to by sheer will.

 

Certain activities are more effective and direct than others. Drugs are particularly effective, which is obvious since many of them were designed with brain chemistry in mind. Of course, that effectiveness comes at the price of losing control and willpower, not to mention the fact that they do their work very sloppily, having all kinds of unintended effects.

 

I think another less direct method is music. Have you ever stopped to think about why it is people spend so much time listening to organized sound? Why do we enjoy this so much? I think music exists as a way of indirectly changing brain states, it's like a sonic screwdriver that we use to tune ourselves up with.

 

I think video games have a similar effect, although by a different route.

 

I don't think this is the entire story, games are certainly fun at a higher, 'cognitive' level, for instance the excitement of pretending that you're part of an elite squadron of spies, or snowboarding down a 20,000 meter mountain. These are enjoyable because they put us into situations we will probably never be in in reality.

 

OK, back to your regularly scheduled thread...

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Great post, Ed!

 

I don't think this is the entire story, games are certainly fun at a higher, 'cognitive' level, for instance the excitement of pretending that you're part of an elite squadron of spies, or snowboarding down a 20,000 meter mountain. These are enjoyable because they put us into situations we will probably never be in in reality.

 

I think in addition to stimulating certain mental states and the 'cognitive' level you speak of, games are pleasurable in their interaction. There is a certain satisfaction associated with operating an object or machine as if it were an extension of oneself. Using a controller to control a virtual character or machine or whatever is no different. Learning to do so skillfully is by far one of the greatest things I love about gaming.

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I think in addition to stimulating certain mental states and the 'cognitive' level you speak of, games are pleasurable in their interaction. There is a certain satisfaction associated with operating an object or machine as if it were an extension of oneself. Using a controller to control a virtual character or machine or whatever is no different. Learning to do so skillfully is by far one of the greatest things I love about gaming.

 

Well, this would be what I include in the 'cognitive' realm, basically the conscious end of things, the stuff your aware of like the satisfaction you feel when setting a best time in GT3A.

 

However, I'm not sure how you tease apart that feeling of satisfaction and the brain activities underlying it without simply equating them, this is one of the fundamental questions in science right now.

 

Anyway, I need to be careful how far I take my little hypothesis because it risks the chance of simply redefining 'addict' and not being very interesting as a result. If everything we do feeds an addiction to certain mental states and neurotransmitters, then what's so bad about being a smack junkie, isn't that just more or the same?

 

There's a difference, and I think it might be in how direct the interface is...neuroactive drugs affect the brain by either binding directly to neurotransmitter sites, or by changing the production or action of natural neurotransmitters. That's essentially a shortcut, bypassing the systems designed by evolution to provide reward...for example, the famous endorphin system. Drugs can be dangerous because (among other things) they can drive these systems much harder than they were designed to be (incidentally, this is one reason why long-term stress is dangerous, it releases the steroid cortisol over long periods of time, which actually damages neurons).

 

I can't even remember all the things that have been reported to stimulate the same areas that drugs like narcotics do, although I do recall that chocolate was one, and 'information' was another (I kid you not, it was in the NY Times earlier this year), now games...there's a reason why these places can be stimulated 'naturally' - without drugs. Conversely, there's a reason that narcotics have brain systems to hook into and jack up.

 

We're designed to be rewarded for certain behaviors, like vigorous exercise (endorphins). My educated suspicion is that the reward systems run all the time, at low levels, delivering doses of serotonin when we get praise from someone we like, or dopamine when we laugh at a joke (I'm making this up, but you get the idea). I think the modern world is full of things specifically designed to tap into the reward system and give a little bit extra, a boost, that list in my first post among them.

 

I want to reiterate that I don't think this is the be-all and end-all of any of these things. I don't think music exists solely to boost serotonin levels in certain places of the brain. It has a huge social role as well, but I don't think these levels are incompatible.

 

Make any sense? Or am I just a wannabe knowitall crackpot? :P

 

P.S. I'm pretty sure this isn't an original idea either, I suspect I've read stuff like this and have forgotten that...

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It strikes me as a natural extension of the argument as to why we can't have those wonderful "drugs that make you feel great, but aren't at all addictive" that people like Moby keep asking for. Its because things that feel good stimulate the areas of the brain that are associated with feeling good. And people like feeling good. So they want to do it more. And that is labelled addiction.

 

This, of course, is a whole other argument from the one we have to put up with as gamers (or indeed techies) all the time. The "you want to do something more than I think is reasonable, rather than doing something I regard as a sensible thing to spend all your free time doing, so its addiction". Nobody ever went into rehab for spending all their weekends playing golf or watching football.

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Originally posted by iainl@Nov 5 2003, 12:58 AM

It strikes me as a natural extension of the argument as to why we can't have those wonderful "drugs that make you feel great, but aren't at all addictive" that people like Moby keep asking for. Its because things that feel good stimulate the areas of the brain that are associated with feeling good. And people like feeling good. So they want to do it more. And that is labelled addiction.

Right, it's not obvious from the 'end user' perspective that drugs simply tap into systems that are already in place in the brain, systems that have a function, and that you normally don't notice on a daily basis (unless you stop and think about what's going on). When these systems are simply doing their job, it's just part of your daily life; you feel great when you accomplish something difficult.

 

My guess is that it will be impossible to create a drug that produces great feelings without somehow having a detrimental effect, because it's circumventing the normal functioning of the system...if you notice that you're 'high' then you've already pushed the brain system responsible for that feeling beyond what it normally does. This isn't to say that every drug causes damage in every case, that's not true...although sufficient quantities of most drugs will.

 

And like you said, we like to feel good, it's a silly thing to even say because it's obvious. When (it's not even an 'if') we create drugs that specifically target 'pleasure centers' and leave alone motor systems, higher-cognitive areas, you will still probably have addiction...but you won't need warning labels about operating heavy machinery. Such warnings are needed because drugs are sloppy, they have global effects.

 

For instance opiates enhance the action of the neurotransmitter GABA, which is used brain-wide to inhibit neuron-to-neuron communication. The transmission of pain signals is dampened, but so are signals to and from the amygdala that signal danger, and transmission of signals in and out of the motor system, which make you unbalanced and less coordinated, and slur your speech.

 

Only under extreme conditions does the brain otherwise sustain wide-spread alterations, for example, conditions such as life-threatening danger where the etire body is put on alert. Otherwise, when reward systems are triggered naturally it's a controlled response, within the parameters of the system.

 

The real question in my mind is why aren't we doing pleasureable stuff 100% of the time. I'm not really sure, except to suggest that there are opposing desires that we can choose to act on, like going to school the day of a test because we know we need a good grade to graduate and get a good job later in life.

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