The author John Coates is a senior research fellow in neuroscience and finance at the University of Cambridge. He previously worked on Wall Street for Goldman Sachs, and ran a trading desk for Deutsche Bank. In 2004 he returned to Cambridge to research the biology of financial risk-taking.
In his book he goes into meticulous detail about the way the body reacts to experiences and the idea that they can sharpen the mind and call forth an overwhelming biological reaction we know as the ‘fight or flight’ response, which I previously wrote about.
The world is now littered with millions of seemingly irrational reactions to fake, un-important experiences such as apps, games, grinding and virtual socializing. It’s not just about recent advances in technology either – Winston Churchill recognized the power of these so-called “non-lethal experiences” when writing of his early years. He recounts a regimental polo match played in Southern India that went to a tie-break in the final chukka: “Rarely have I seen such strained faces on both sides,” he recalls. “You would not have thought it was not just a game at all, but a matter of life and death. Far graver crises cause less keen emotion“. He is of course referring to ‘the zone’ that people enter when they’re engaged in an activity so deeply that they lose all sense of reality.
When I talk about neuro mechanics and functions that might fire up the reward center, I’m talking about trying to keep people on a winning streak and stimulating (simulating?) feelings of euphoria. When we’re aroused by success, our appetite for opportunity expands and we want more of it. The ‘Tinder‘ generation are chasing a new kind of dragon. The dragon that goes PING and tells them there’s a match. There’s a flip-side too, on a losing streak we might struggle with a kind of digital fear – reliving the bad moments over and over. In those cases stress hormones linger in our brains, promoting a pathological risk-aversion, even depression. John Coates warns that during the down cycles of losing or being withdrawn from the highs, the stress hormones can circulate in our blood, contributing to recurrent viral infections, high blood pressure, abdominal fat build-up and even gastric ulcers.
‘Digital’ is now as much a biological activity, with as many medical consequences, as facing down a grizzly bear.
Recent advances in neuroscience and physiology have shown that when we engage in deep experiences, for example JawBone Up24, our bodies are doing a lot more than just ‘thinking’ about the outcomes and not just because it’s linked to physical activity. We actually start to crave the lessons we learn from the data it shows us. Our bodies, expecting action, switch on an emergency network of physiological circuitry, and the resulting surge in electrical and chemical activity feeds back in to the brain, affecting the way we think and behave. In this way body and brain twine as a single entity, united in the face of the approaching data storm. We’re talking about micro-milliseconds of cognition and excitement too. Most of the time we’re not even aware it’s happening. But it’s just enough to keep our sub-conscience aware that it’s something worth repeating.
One of the brains regions responsible for this early-warning system is the Locus Ceruleus (pronounced Ser-u-leus), so called because it’s cells are cerulean or deep blue. Situated in the brain stem, the most primitive part of the brain, sitting atop the spine, the Locus Ceruleus responds to novelty and promotes a state of arrousel. When a correlation between events breaks down or a new pattern emerges, when something is just not right, this primitive part of the brain registers the change long before conscious awareness. By doing so it places the brain on high-alert, galvanizing us into a state of heightened vigilance, and lowering our sensory thresholds so that we hear the faintest sound, notice the slightest movement. Athletes experiencing this effect have said that when caught up in the flow of a game they can pick out every voice in the stadium, see every blade of grass.
Welcome to the Engine Room
You get that all too familiar notification push PING sound from your pocket…. Your body automatically starts to create fuel, and lots of it, in the form of glucose. The body also needs Oxygen to burn this fuel, and it needs an increased flow of blood to deliver this fuel and oxygen to gas-guzzling cells throughout the body, and therefore you need an expanded exhaust pipe, in the form of dilated bronchial tubes and throat, to vent the carbon dioxide waste once the fuel is burned. Breathing accelerates, drawing in more oxygen, and the heart rates speed up. Our bodies, unbeknownst to us, are preparing for the experience when we sense it’s approach. Metabolism speeds up, ready to break down existing energy stores in liver, muscle and fat cells should the situation demand it. Cells of the immune system take up position, like firefighters, at vulnerable points of our bodies, such as the skin, and stand ready to deal with injury and infection. The nervous system, extending from the brain down into the abdomen, has begun redistributing blood throughout our bodies, constricting blood flow to the gut, giving us butterflies, and shunting blood to major muscle groups in the arms and thighs as well as to the lungs, heart and brain. Again, often so tiny a reaction we’re not even aware it’s happening at all.
The very fact we can design experiences that create excitement and anticipation that can change people physically is a remarkable feat. In that millisecond it’s taken for Tinder to fire you a push PING notification to say someone has matched with you we just made Digital become physical. Just think about that, it’s insanely cool.
“YOU HAVE A NEW MATCH” …Bang… rising levels of testosterone increase production of hemoglobin, and consequently your bloods capacity to carry oxygen; the testosterone also increases your state of confidence and crucially your appetite for risk.
This is a moment of total transformation, that the French since the middle ages have referred to as “L’heure entre chien et loup” which translates as “the hour between dog and wolf”
The phrase refers to a specific time of day, when the light is such that one can’t distinguish between a dog or wolf. Under extreme, artificial circumstances we can lose our true selves to this virtual world we swim in.
In the last 15 years we’ve created dozens of new ways of firing up the parts of the body I describe above and at a mass scale. Do we even know what the effect of that might be? For millennia we’ve evolved without this wave of artificial stimulants and suddenly it’s introduced into society, globally, and in vast vast quantities. In fact it’s really only since the advent and mass adoption of the smartphone that things have got really juicy.
My name is Pete, and I’m an addict
There’s more too. The hormone, adrenaline, produced by the core of the adrenal glands located on top of the kidney, surges into your blood when this artificial stimulant – the push notification – is triggered. Another hormone, the steroid Cortisol, commonly known as the Stress Hormone, trickles out of the rim of the adrenal gland and travels to the brain, where it stimulates the release of dopamine, a chemical operating along neural circuits known as the pleasure pathways. Normally stress is a nasty experience, but not at low-levels. At low-levels it thrills. A non-threatening stressor or challenge, like a sporting match, a fast drive, being matched on a dating site, seeing our portfolio increase in our trading apps or beating the system in an app, game or experience, releases Cortisol, and in combination with dopamine, one of the most addictive drugs known to the human brain, delivers a narcotic hit, a rush, a flow that convinces you there is no better moment in the world than this one right here.
It’s all happening inside us every day.
In that hour between dog and wolf, we can’t know if we’re safe or threatened. We can’t be sure if our eyes deceive, if we truly know what we think we know. We’re caught somewhere between comfort (ignorant bliss?) and fear. It’s good, of course, to be able to distinguish between the two, but… Most people have never mastered that. It’s why the body reacts in the way it does. Irrationally. Uncontrollably. Even just on a micro level.
John Coates book analyses the phenomenon that occurs in intense periods of time on Trading Floors of major banks. The phrase “The hour between dog and wolf” feels like an appropriate description. It’s about these big heavy bursts of insanity that change people in incredible ways for good and bad. But in the world of small micro interactions we’re creating, maybe the more appropriate phase needs to be;
The SECOND between PING and POW
It feels somehow more appropriate to the Gen Y crowd.
Keep all this in mind when you question why we are becoming more and more fascinated in the biology behind experiences. It might seem silly and overkill, even benign, to start breaking these things down so deliberately, but the the body really is a marvelous machine and the potent potential we have to manipulate it with the creation of digital experiences is not just incredible but also potentially destructive. Nobody is really sure what this new surge of artificial stimulants is doing to society and biology.
A lot of people are asking me why I’m going down this path of bringing biology into the story – It’s really very straightforward – It is simply very fascinating! A story of human behaviour spiked with biology can lead to some particularly vivid moments of recognition. The term recognition is commonly used to describe the point in a story when all of a sudden we understand what is going on, and by that very process understand ourselves better. For when we understand what is going on inside our bodies, and why, we are met with repeated Aha! moments.
Today, NeuroCX more than any other subject, throws a light into the dark corners of our lives and every time I learn something new about the biology behind design and experience I get a little hit of Cortisol that keeps me wanting to learn more.