Why Learning Feels Good

by F.

You know that feeling when you grasp a difficult concept or have an insight? That “OOOH!” you get from learning something new or seeing something in a new way? Irving Biederman at USC may know the explanation:

Neuroscientists have proposed a simple explanation for the pleasure of grasping a new concept: The brain is getting its fix.

The “click” of comprehension triggers a biochemical cascade that rewards the brain with a shot of natural opium-like substances, said Irving Biederman, professor of neuroscience in USC College, who presents his theory in an invited article in the latest issue of American Scientist.

And the paradigm case Biederman studied? Seeing images.

Biederman’s theory was inspired by a widely ignored 25-year-old finding that mu-opioid receptors – binding sites for natural opiates – increase in density along the ventral visual pathway, a part of the brain involved in image recognition and processing.

The receptors are tightly packed in the areas of the pathway linked to comprehension and interpretation of images, but sparse in areas where visual stimuli first hit the cortex.

Biederman’s theory holds that the greater the neural activity in the areas rich in opioid receptors, the greater the pleasure.

Could this help explain why Impressionism appears to be the favorite style of both educated and uneducated visual art audiences? Seems likely to me. After all, Impressionism requires visual problem solving on the part of the audience: the audience helps construct the image, which, I speculate, may tickle those mu-opioid receptors.

Hat Tip: Neuromarketing.