14 February 2006

Anticipation of Reward

I still remember the afternoon, over 40 years ago, when I came home after just finishing the First Grade. I had worked a good fraction of my life for this day, and I had been successful - I was an "A" student. The entire summer, days without number, lay ahead for me to play, to explore, to discover. The greens of the leaves and the grass, the blue of the sky were vivid, intense, like walking in a dream. And the dream lasted the rest of the day.

"There is a circuit in your brain for that," remarked my wife, who is studying psychology. "Essentially it is activated when you expect to experience a reward - something that you will enjoy. It makes you feel simultaneously alert, confident and happy, which in turn enables you to engage in the kind of exploratory, seeking behavior that is needed to get that reward. It's the same circuit that is hihacked by heroin and other addictions."

Yes, indeed. I was anticipating a whole summer. And then a darker thought intruded.

"It's probably also the same circuit that triggers when a suicide bomber is about to blow himself up. He expects Heaven," I said. "It explains why they often smile when they do it. Or so various jihadi websites claim."

Well, that was a downer. We changed the subject to something more fitting to the occasion.

Happy Valentine's Day.

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