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Archive for the ‘Stimulation and Arousal’ Category

Pop a sugar cube in your mouth and what happens? You taste sweetness, right? Pretty simple.

Not so, according to researchers. Simple pleasures actually hide a complex dance between the brain, the nervous system and a host of chemical or electrical reactions — all of which might hold important keys to your overall satisfaction and happiness.

Take the desire for something pleasurable. Is that the same as the result itself? Say you want to water ski and imagine the spray on your face, the tug of the boat and the bright, blue sky above as you crisscross across the smooth, watery surface. Will the event match your expectations? Perhaps. Both may give you the same pleasure.

But “wanting” and “having” something may also have two different outcomes in the brain, according to researchers at the University of Michigan. In other words, you can gain pleasure from each independent of the other. For example, the researchers suggest that some drug addicts relapse because their changed brains make them vulnerable to wanting the drugs, even after the symptoms of withdrawal have long passed.

In practical terms, desire holds its own rewards. We can actually experience pleasure and thus some level of satisfaction by wanting something, regardless of whether or not it becomes reality.

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Make no mistake about it. Many people enter politics for one fairly simple reason — it’s highly stimulating.

Look at the candidates running for President. Crowds of people hanging on their every word. New cities and towns to visit. Staff members who need direction and leadership. Policy statements that gain national media attention. Every moment of the candidate’s waking day is filled with endless excitement, stimulation and energy. It’s a drug of sorts, a kind of natural high.

And boy do they like it. They like it a lot.

If we’ve learned anything, though, about stimulation and excitement it’s this — it never lasts at the same level as it began. Thus, is it any wonder the media gets bored with one campaigner or our politicians become bored with the dull, seemingly routine mechanics of governing? Nothing quite compares to the race. Nothing beats a good rally.

But at what price? Do we elect people on their ability to excite us or on their ability to govern and get things done? Perhaps what we need in positions of power and national leadership are not seekers of stimulation, but men and women of quiet accomplishments, fortitude and intelligence.

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If you crave material possessions, then welcome to the “club.”

According to Professor Peter Whybrow of UCLA, greed has gripped the U.S. While it’s not a new phenomenon, he argues in his book, American Mania, that’s what’s different this time is that social brakes which once held us all in check have practically vanished, resulting in a non-stop, 24/7 pursuit of affluence unprecedented in our history.

In other words — recession be damned — plow full steam ahead consumers.

But Whybrow says danger lies ahead and it’s not from overextended credit cards. He says this excessive pursuit has pushed us to our physiological limits, as evidenced by the increased levels of obesity, Type II diabetes, sleep deprivation, anxiety, and depression.

Why are we all so tempted by greed? Perhaps the simplest answer is — greed stimulates us. The pursuit, capture and use of material possessions excites us, firing neurons deep inside our brain that we find very satisfying. No wonder some people say buying is like a drug. As far as the brain is concerned — it is.

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A recent news story about an alleged grisly killing by teenagers in Michigan demonstrates when the desire for stimulation and excitement goes horribly astray.

According to the police, the teenagers reportedly said they killed an individual for the “thrill of it.”

As disturbing as this incident is, it also raises a ton of questions. Here are just a few.

  • Is our overstimulated society propelling some individuals (especially young ones) to seek such greater and greater levels of stimulation (and risks) that the only way they can be satisfied is to break the ultimate social taboo?
  • Are personal, parental and societal controls so lacking in today’s environment that there are few, if any, brakes preventing young people from thinking of and committing such acts?
  • Is our society’s hypercompetitiveness (which in itself is stimulating) partly to blame for setting a foundation of constant excitement seeking?
  • Can this disturbing trend be reversed or are we as a society forever cursed with this “disease?” Are we long past being thought of as a peaceful nation?
  • If killing is so “easy,” how easy would it be for the U.S. society as a whole to slip into lawlessness, given the right circumstances? Does our rule of law protect us in that regard or are we just kidding ourselves?

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Why do some people get bored so easily and others do not? Why, for example, can one person fully enjoy watching a sunset and another person find the experience just about the most useless, mind-numbing experience on the face of the planet?

The answer to those two questions could lie in how each one of us uniquely seeks and avoids certain levels of stimulation. Think of the person we might label as a “hell raiser.” They are constantly seeking and often finding a high level of stimulation. Wild parties. Maybe racing a motorcycle at two in the morning. At the other extreme is the Buddhist monk, who has purposely reduced his interaction with minimal external stimulation. And yet, both may be very satisfied with their situation — perhaps even happy about it.

Unless we are indeed Buddhist monks, the rest of us seek certain levels of stimulation, which in turn generates arousal in our nervous system. Some people require greater levels of stimulation than others, which Dr. Maynard Shelly calls “H-Types (for High levels of stimulation). Those with a low need for stimulation are called “L-Types.”

Why is this significant? Because it explains, in part, some behaviors and attitudes. If someone has a high need or threshhold for stimulation and doesn’t get it (or it runs out), he or she will most likely say they are “bored.” That in itself may not have much significance unless this constant “thirst” for stimulation is thwarted (thereby elevating a level of frustration or anger) or if this behavior leads to other pesonal choices that may not be in the long-term interest of the individual. For example, the addictive power of cocaine and its stimulating high can lead to other negative behaviors (such as theft or poor work performance). To compound the problem, the high wears off and it takes more cocaine to sustain the same stimulation — a vicious cycle with no positive outcome.

The quest for stimulation and avoidance of boredom can be seen as one of the primary drivers of human behavior today.

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Could you “party hard” for a week straight? That is, could you go non-stop drinking alcohol (or drugs) and doing all of the other things that is generally associated with typical “hard partying” for a constant seven days and seven nights?

Many college students would likely say — bring it on! But it may not be as easy as it seems. In fact, for most of us — it may be darn near impossible, if not highly improbable.

Why is that? Why are we not likely to party hard for a week straight? The answer to that question may be both simple and complex, but there’s no doubt it’s central to the entire discussion about the psychology of satisfaction.

This scenario was actually posed by Dr. Shelly in his class many years ago (if my memory serves me correctly). Basically, he said at the beginning of the semester that there were a number of ways in which to get a good grade, and one of them was to literally party day and night for a week. Did anybody take him up on it? Don’t know. But it’s an intriguing and perhaps tempting test.

So why wouldn’t most of us be unable to fulfill the requirement? The simple answer is — we wouldn’t be able to maintain the same level of external and internal stimulation during that time. At some point we are likely to be either overstimulated (and thus find the experience very dissatisfying) or oversaturated and bored with the same level of stimulation, in which case we need to find even more stimulation to maintain the status quo.

Could it be that too much stimulation is not a good thing? You bet. Yet the other interesting thing to note – our acceptance level of stimulation is individually set. That is to say — we each respond to different levels of stimulation in different ways. Here’s an obvious example — some of us love really big, scary rollercoasters (highly stimulating), while some of us are scared to death of them and won’t go on them. Any discussion of satisfaction and happiness gets complicated because of these individual tolerance levels of stimulation and arousal.

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