Dopamine and psychic junk mail
Apparently, I signed up for the newsletter of a brain-game design company, whose various drills for dendrites leverage our natural neuroplasticity in an effort to find one's lost marbles and change them from cat's eyes into steelies. The fact that I don't recall signing up for their brain-spam means I either need their services or their marketing department is run by an evil-genius.
The upshot is (according to the brain-spam cribbed from the journal Science) that, "Researchers from the Karolinski Institute in Sweden have discovered that cognitive training can increase release of dopamine," the neurotransmitter that helps signal "reward."
"The brain releases dopamine to say 'good job, do that again!' in response to pleasurable experiences - thus, dopamine is often critical to learning." And, I suspect, it's critical to addictions as well.
So, I went searching for someone peddling the dope on dopamine. As researcher Imran Siddiqui wrote in "Dopamine and Addiction," a paper published at Bryn Mawr's website: "In certain areas of the brain when dopamine is released, it gives one the feeling of pleasure or satisfaction. These feelings of satisfaction become desired, and the person will grow a desire for the satisfaction. To satisfy that desire the person will repeat behaviors that cause the release of dopamine ... Often these behaviors can result in addiction due to their effect on dopamine, and that addiction can have negative effects on a person's well-being."
So, basically, brain-game apps are digital crack? Yes. Is it bad for you? Not as bad as real crack. Will it make you smarter? Well, it won't make you stupider, which is where we're all headed anyway, especially if you're on real-crack.
It's ironic that we presumably grow wiser as we get older but lose the faculty to remember how ignorant we once were. Perhaps that's what wisdom really is - forgetting you're stupid. Or, maybe it's heroically copping to one's ignorance, like Socrates claiming "All I know is that I know nothing."
Somewhere, in the back in the class of Life, someone is asking "Will this be on the test?" to which I can confidently answer, yes, but I can't remember why because I smoked too much dopamine.
Case in point: When I reread things I've written years ago, two thoughts occur to me - A) "Oh, crap, I'm Charlie from 'Flowers for Algernon' and my comprehension of my own purple-prose has diminished greatly," or B) "This writing is so crappy and incomprehensible, thank goodness no one said 'good job, do that again!' Otherwise, the dopamine fix might have crystallized my brain into an incomprehensible crap-writing machine."
Of course, there's the third thought that readers may be having this very moment - C) "But you ARE an incomprehensible crap-writing machine." Permit me to reply, D) You, dear reader, must thus be an incomprehensible crap-reading machine. There, the circuit is complete, karmic balance achieved, all is right with the world and yet I've got the nagging suspicion that I'm forgetting something.
Perhaps at the moment of death, everything we've ever forgotten comes back in an instant - a mad barrage of the puzzle pieces lost in the crevices of our minds; all the words that failed to make the leap from the tips of our tongues, the answers we knew but didn't, the seedlings that flowered regret, once-important motives like spectres of eraser dust. If a lifetime of personal history crashed through the letter slot of death's door, wouldn't it just be psychic junk mail? Perhaps recalling the little things in our lives gives the big things a sense of scale. If so, we don't need cognitive training to realize this; I suspect this is something we always know. But maybe sometimes forget.
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Daedalus Howell keeps his brain in a jar at DHowell.com.