Brain Health,

#188: The Pleasure of Novelty

July 07, 2017

“Only a root vegetable would not find it interesting…”

That’s how Irving Biederman, Harold W. Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience at USC, describes the method by which our visual systems bring the world into our brains.

Not only is the visual area in our brains just about as efficient as it can possibly get, it also contains opioid receptors.

Bringing the World Into Our Brains

So we have pleasure-inducing chemicals in the neural pathway dedicated to vision.  What gives?

The linking of perception and cognitive pleasure creates a theory of aesthetics as well as our preference for new experiences.

Humans obviously get great pleasure from the novel.  Think of humor, which is most successful when it’s unexpected and creative.

Episode #188 was the “debut episode” for the partnership between Smart Drug Smarts and VitaMonk Learn all about VitaMonk here, or if you want in on the Launch List that Jesse talked about on the episode, the details and sign-up are here.

What’s the Point of Meditation?

Meditation is so hot right now.  But (controversial perspective alert) Dr. Biederman doesn’t see much point.

His perspective is this:  We need novelty to stimulate the production of opioids, and novelty is found outside the brain.  Our lives are so much more interesting than making our minds go blank.

If meditation is helping you, by all means continue on.  But if you struggle with sitting still and would rather get out into the world, consider this your permission slip.

Taking Advantage of Your Brain’s Chemistry

Humans are naturally prone to taking advantage of novelty.  As Dr. Biederman puts it, we’re all infovores to various extents.

The key is to recognize that, although we’re all driven by novelty, we’re not all engaged by the same novelty.  So seek out the new information that calls to you, and avoid being bogged down in daily administration. Routine tasks suppress our desire for new stimuli.

And while you’re at it, knock off the celebrity gossip rags.  Tune in to the episode to find out why.

Read Full Transcript
Show Notes
  • 00:00:33

    Episode Intro

  • 00:01:38

    This Week In Neuroscience

  • 00:04:01

    Water Fast

  • 00:04:20

    Smart Drug Smarts News + Updates

  • 00:07:21

    Introduction to Dr. Irving Biederman

  • 00:08:18

    Interview with Dr. Irving Biederman

  • 00:10:06

    The Great Input Into Visual Cognition: Shape

  • 00:11:00

    Understanding Shapes Through Stages In The Cortex

  • 00:13:28

    Why Are Opioid Receptors In Pathway Dedicated to Vision?

  • 00:15:57


  • 00:36:00

    Opioids Of The Masses

  • 00:39:39

    Interview Lead-out

  • 00:40:57

    Ruthless Listener Retention Gimmick: Your Scientific Justification For Cussing

  • 00:43:47

    Episode Wrap-Up

One comment

  1. ben says:

    Regarding the processing of visual information (11m mark), there’s a great documentary called “Tim’s Vermeer”, where around the 42min mark they talk about how the optic nerve has limited bandwidth, and that the retina is an actual outgrowth of the brain allowing much of the visual data to be pre-processed before ever traveling to the ‘main’ brain. Who knew the retina had more than just light receptors (melenpfsen)?!

    Regarding the opioid receptors in the visual pathway, there was a great Stem Talk episode (#39) that goes into detail about the make-up of the brain neurons, much it found by literally blending brains in a Vitamix and making brain soup! She talks about how neurons usually increases with the size of the brain, and that the energy the brain needs is directly a function of the number of neurons (Glial cells also increase with brain size, but the density is a constant!) Interestingly, a large animal like the elephant, has 3x more neurons than humans, but 98% of those neurons are in the cerebellum, while humans have the concentration in the prefrontal/cerebral cortex. The amount of neurons required for movement and basic function is relatively small, and so humans further capitalized the cerebral cortex advantage by inventing cooking!

    There was also a good Sam Harris episode with Geoffrey West (From Cells to Cities) that also talks about the scaling of different mammals as it relates to life span and brain energy. For example, doubling the size only requires 3/4 more energy. He also mentions how the number of heartbeats is a constant 1B and is a function of size * heartrate!

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