16 August 2009

Genealogy as a basic human instinct?

How do you spell genealogy? Try D-o-p-a-m-i-n-e.

That's what makes us lose all sense of time and forces us to come back for more. According to the author of a Slate magazine article, "nature imbued us with an unquenchable drive to discover, to explore."

Sounds like genealogy to me.

The Slate article has implications for genealogists who become addictively focused on the search for information. I'm sure we can add genealogy to the basic human instinct (food, sex and sleep) lineup of activities that are pleasurable.

A few years ago, when speaking to an Ancestry.com staffer, I called the site "cocaine for genealogists." They laughed, but felt that it really wasn't an appropriate advertising slogan!

According to some scientists, experiments have shown that people will neglect almost everything to keep getting that buzz.

How often have you stayed up til 2am or later when a new database was released, in the hope that you might find something related to your families of interest? Just five minutes more, just 10 minutes more you think, and when you come up for air, those few minutes have stretched to hours.

Steve Morse's now-famous tool for searching Ellis Island came from his marathon session when that database was released. And, of course, it was just that extra five minutes that enabled me to find my great-grandfather's Canadian border crossing record! That five-minute search ended at 4am!

According to Washington State University neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp in the article:
It is an emotional state Panksepp tried many names for: curiosity, interest, foraging, anticipation, craving, expectancy. He finally settled on seeking. Panksepp has spent decades mapping the emotional systems of the brain he believes are shared by all mammals, and he says, "Seeking is the granddaddy of the systems." It is the mammalian motivational engine that each day gets us out of the bed, or den, or hole to venture forth into the world. It's why, as animal scientist Temple Grandin writes in Animals Make Us Human, experiments show that animals in captivity would prefer to have to search for their food than to have it delivered to them.

For humans, this desire to search is not just about fulfilling our physical needs. Panksepp says that humans can get just as excited about abstract rewards as tangible ones. He says that when we get thrilled about the world of ideas, about making intellectual connections, about divining meaning, it is the seeking circuits that are firing.

The juice that fuels the seeking system is the neurotransmitter dopamine. The dopamine circuits "promote states of eagerness and directed purpose," Panksepp writes. It's a state humans love to be in. So good does it feel that we seek out activities, or substances, that keep this system aroused—cocaine and amphetamines, drugs of stimulation, are particularly effective at stirring it.
Read the complete article at the link above.

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