Hit the books for opium-like high: study
What do a heroin user and a library-bound scholar have in common (other than bleary eyes)? According to a University of Southern California neuroscientist, both are just trying to satisfy the craving for a very similar 'fix.'
Lead researcher Irving Biederman admits that "trying to understand a difficult theorem...is not fun," but says, "Once you get it, you just feel fabulous."
This "A-ha!" moment - when a complicated concept finally makes sense - releases a natural biochemical cascade in your brain similar to that released by opiate drugs.
Once you've experienced this pleasure, your brain is motivated to maximize the rate at which it absorbs knowledge.
Perhaps, at this point the learning spirals "out of control." You're lost to the library and the influences of other scholars and information - addicts trying to feed the need to understand increasingly complex theorems.
Having smarts is cool
Your need to be accepted - especially by the opposite sex - may be the reason for your determined drive to learn. Researchers theorize that this intense motivation to make it all "click" is just evolution at work, as intelligence influences mate selection.
Only the more pressing necessities - like the quest for food - trump the need for knowledge, Biederman says.
Repeated doses not enough
This research is closely linked to Neural Darwinism: the concept that after repeated exposure to information that at one time caused a lot of excitement in your brain, neurons eventually adapt, making the concept less interesting.
Biederman used fMRI technology to test this idea. He exposed a group of volunteers to a number of images and observed that neurons initially engaged by certain compelling images were eventually "freed up" upon repeated exposure, allowing these parts of the brain to pursue other challenging or stimulating concepts.
"The system is essentially designed to maximize the rate at which you acquire new but interpretable [understandable] information. Once you have acquired the information, you best spend your time learning something else," Biederman says.
The theory is presented in an article in the latest issue of American Scientist