Knowledge and Addiction

Can knowledge acquisition fall into an addiction model?

The thought of being addicted to knowledge appears somewhat ridiculous, after all, knowledge acquisition is seen as laudable and a necessity for a rich and fulfilling life. Knowledge is if often heralded and even worshipped by cultures the world over; indeed knowledgeable individuals are valued and seem to command a certain level of respect. Knowing more about something than somebody else can even serve to boost one’s social status, and once we realize that we can never know everything, we mandate and support the use of academic professionals for the sake of finding out more truths; truths that we can lap-up, think about and discuss without doing the cognitive fieldwork. So even now we can begin to see the craving and the use and abuse of information. In short, we just cannot do without it.

Finding out something new can often be a thrilling experience, urging you on to build-upon this thrilling piece of new information, or seeking another hit of information to reward you with the same feeling as before. If humans can rapidly learn cues and contexts that predict the availability of addictive drugs (von de Goltz; Kiefer, 2009), what is to say they are not using the same cognitive machinery to learn where to obtain another hit of information? A friend, the Internet, a book, a library, or a professor, and this exchange can often take place quickly and efficiently in the comfort of one’s own home with the use of a phone, a computer or a television. Finding a source of knowledge is in fact rewarding in itself and will quickly become highly valued and used for future acts of knowledge acquisition.

Behavior that constitutes addiction is often known to be both impulsive and compulsive. Impulsivity is marked by rapid and unintended reactions to internal and external stimuli, without regard for negative consequences. Compulsive behavior is characterized by perseveration in the face of adversity (Koob, 2009). It is not hard to see how knowledge acquisition fits both of these behaviors. Reading news headlines, texting and responding to text messages, the sudden urge to see how an entertaining plotline continues at the point of a cliffhanger, the use of social internet sites to view a status update of friends (or enemies), and waiting by a phone in the anticipation of receiving important information all represent an impulsive need to know. And as our attention is directed at receiving this information we can easily become blind to the consequences. This can range from short term foibles like automobile accidents caused by using a phone or an animated conversation with a passenger, to the long term neglect of friends, family and pets if the behavior is not moderated.

Compulsive and impulsive behavior can be seen in the light of delayed reinforcement.  When we act to obtain reinforcement, there is always a delay between the action and the outcome, and thus to control the world successfully, animals must be able to use delayed reinforcement (Cardinal, 2001). How well we control our anxiety caused by the anticipation of knowledge is the difference between compulsive and impulsive behavior; the perceived reward remains the focus, but the time allowed by the individual to achieve their goal differs in accordance with their need. This is perhaps even analogous to the neuronal rewards for sex. Instant gratification by way of masturbation provides a reward for an impulsive appetite, whereas a compulsive appetite is not bound by the need of a quick fix, even though the means of achieving the goal may have developed into an unhealthy obsession. The need to know things instantly can invoke impulsive behavior, but by contrast scholastic behavior is rife with trials and tribulations, yet the anticipatory rewards contribute to the ongoing drive for worthwhile knowledge. Many scholars fight adversity every day for publication in prestigious journals and for validation among their peers, and the best way to do this is to present a new piece of knowledge or an original perspective on an existing idea and hope that it too hijacks the reward system of the right people and satisfies their need for knowledge gratification, or at least the needs of a potential market. Despite this immense adversity, tremendous efforts are made, regardless.

There is perhaps also a difference in the quality of this gratification. Information obtained by the need of a quick fix does not require much thought, whereas those who seek to satisfy their intellect’s engage in long bouts of sustained sensory stimulation to build up their cognitive machinery to better understand the world; the satisfaction gained from this is arguably a greater reward, such as an emotional “Eureka!” moment of discovery.

Dopamine could play a role in the addiction to learning. The mesolimbic pathway delivers dopamine into the frontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for executive functions, such as planning, forecasting and working memory. Dopamine appears to play an integral role in cognition. Stimulation of the D1 receptor in the PFC is linked to increases in the amount of NMDA receptors and could possibly play a role in NMDA receptor processes in the PFC (Wolf ; Gao, 2008). Increased activity of NMDA receptors can in turn increase AMPA receptors, resulting in long term potentiation and the strengthening of the prefrontal synapse, something that could be vital for maintaining working memory and our natural capacities for problem solving and critical thinking. The study by Wolf et al. goes on to suggest that addictive drugs like cocaine, which block the re-uptake of dopamine, could enhance NMDA receptor activity, which could in turn facilitate the neuronal plasticity that focuses behaviors towards drug-seeking. If natural levels of dopamine are high or dopamine re-uptake is naturally low or inhibited, surely neuronal plasticity could focus on behaviors that utilize the prefrontal neurons, such as working memory and learning, albeit weaker than cocaine addiction? This could present a natural addiction to learning behavior, although there is no evidence to support this claim.

High concentrations of dopamine have been linked to increased levels of endorphins (an endogenous morphine-liked compound) in the mammalian brain (Neri et al., 2008). In rats, β-endorphin has been linked to memory consolidation and memory retrieval (Barros, 2003). Endorphins are well known for the feelings of euphoria produced when they bind to opioid receptors in the brain, and so if increases of dopamine result in increases of endorphins, there could easily be a desire for the organism to replicate the behavior that caused the good feelings. If high levels of dopamine are involved in strengthening synaptic connections in the prefrontal cortex that are involved in cognition, and also producing higher levels of β-endorphin, which aids memory retrieval and memory consolidation, plus creating a mild euphoric feeling, it is not hard to see how the machinery involved in knowledge acquisition is tempting you to repeat this behavior.

I would like to suggest that the reward for learning has to be more than adaptive behavior that could promote the success of the organism. A neuronal reward system would encourage humans to learn and seek knowledge, which in turn would result in adaptive behavior, allowing for the successful cognitive evolution of the species. A biological system of addiction is perfect, as it gives the human a big push towards self-perpetuating beneficial learning behavior, even if misery and negative consequences are experienced along the way.

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