I have an 8 foot by 8 foot bookcase full of books that I haven’t read. What I’ve recently realized is that the way my brain’s reward circuitry is structured is primarily responsible for this situation. My brain operates with book-buying in much the same way that many drug and other addictions work. Here’s how. I’ll use a recent book purchase as an example.
I come upon a review of a new book. In this case let’s use Daniel Levitin’s, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. Immediately, I feel this excited, pleasurable feeling in my brain and body as my “liking” and “wanting” reward circuitry begins firing action potentials (electro-chemical signals). “This is great. A book I can really use. I’m constantly feeling overwhelmed by all the information that bombards me day in and day out. This book will probably not only help me with that, but I’m sure it will provide additional benefits as well.” These and other thoughts keep the reward circuitry zinging, which adds to the excitement. Now, I’ve got to have that book. And the anticipation of ordering it and waiting for it to arrive – much like the rituals around scoring and using drugs (so I’ve read) – adds even further to the feel-good process going on in my brain and body. Each day now holds some bit of anticipatory excitement awaiting the book’s arrival.
But then – much like the anticipation and letdown after the long-awaited coming of Hannukah or Christmas morning – the book arrives. Wow, it’s a … Big Book. Almost 500 pages. Where am I going to find the time to read all those pages? What about all the other books? Books with fewer pages? Books written by some of my other favorite writer-researchers, like V.S. Ramachandran, or Lou Cozolino, or Gabor Mate (who has confessed a similar compulsive buying addiction to … classical music CDs)?
Can you feel the excitement dying? Feel the reward circuitry going dark? Three guesses where The Organized Mind is going to end up, as tomorrow I discover new books and get all jazzed up and “rinse and repeat” this liking-wanting-anticipation process all over again.
… But Thinking Makes It So
We do not benefit from labeling addictions and compulsions as either good or bad. Essentially, they are ways that human beings learn to do something that has been subverted or compromised in our brain’s early development: the network capacity to easily manage arousal. There are people whose early development has allowed them to build out self-regulation brain networks such that managing arousal takes very little energy. These are people who don’t drink, smoke or overeat (or compulsively buy books or CDs) because they have no need to solve life’s arousal-regulation management requirement in this way. Their brains do it naturally and effortlessly, mostly because early Adverse Childhood Experiences haven’t compromised the connections running between their emotional and cognitive arousal-regulatory brain networks.
The rest of us are forced to creatively devise energy-intensive neural work-arounds. Some workarounds (books and CD-buying) impact our lives and health less adversely than others (smoking, drinking, over-eating). But they are each a part of the very basic human need to keep our life’s energy in some kind of manageable regulatory balance – whatever gets us through the night. And day.
Overt Versus Covert
So that’s the overt part of this work-around process. But there’s a covert part as well – the part where I’m getting juiced by the process of buying and anticipating delivery of Levitin’s book subverts the possibility for me getting all fired up about … planning, designing and writing my own carefully-crafted 500 page book (which few people might read, but my brain and body will definitely benefit from actually organizing and writing). Anthony Richardson, writing in the online magazine, Medium, makes a compelling and provocative argument that less than one percent of us will actually take up the work of writing such a book, or any book for that matter. He makes a distinction between what he calls Skilled Creators (SCs) and Replication Creators (RCs). SCs take center stage; RCs sit in the audience. Skilled Creators “use the space between their ears like a muscle and produce something new with it without the help of someone else.” Replication Creators take their inspiration from others – me, for example, reading Levitin’s book and using it for inspiration to write my own. Richardson further argues that the ready availability of “awesome sauce” (dopamine – the brains’ feel-good neurotransmitter) for RCs as we read and do research, subverts any drive or inclination we might have to become SCs. Richardson’s solution? Read and research less; think and create more.
And while it doesn’t have to be either/or, or so black and white, Richardson has a point. The ease of doing computer-mediated research and discovering and buying things online and the hits of dopamine they provide are significant factors resulting in my having this bookcase full of unread books. If you want to become the next internet gazillionaire, create an easy way for people to readily remedy this significant brain design limitation.