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The Need for Novelty

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Tags Media and CulturePhilosophy and Methodology

03/06/2008Doug French

[This article originally appeared in Liberty Watch.]

It probably comes from being at middle age. A person starts wondering about things like: What's life all about? Why are we here? What is happiness? How do we achieve satisfaction? (You know, what Mick Jagger couldn't get.) Thankfully, there are people out there studying the brain to see what provides us humans with that elusive concept of satisfaction.

The dictionary says that satisfaction is the act of being satisfied. Which then satisfy is "to fulfill the desires, needs or demands of…" But Professor Gregory Berns has a more profound definition. "Satisfaction is an emotion that captures the uniquely human need to impart meaning to one's activities," Berns explains in his book Satisfaction: Sensation Seeking, Novelty, and The Science of Finding True Fulfillment.

So while the dictionary implies that a person can be satisfied by not acting, Berns contends that human action must be included for a person to achieve satisfaction. A person can be temporarily happy by winning the lottery, but "satisfaction can arise only by the conscious decision to do something," Berns writes. "And this makes all the difference in the world, because it is only your own actions for which you may take responsibility and credit."

Our author, a Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at Emory University and Biomedical Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, takes the reader on a very personal journey in his quest to understand satisfaction. Readers of this review might take one look at Berns' credentials and decide that reading Satisfaction would be dry and, well, less than satisfying. Don't be fooled, Berns tells a wonderful story, and his prose will at least occasionally grab even those who feast on cheap fiction to sate their reading appetites.

For instance: "I heard a deliciously feminine voice say, 'Godan daginn' [good morning]. In an effort to determine the source of this beautiful lilt, my head spun around so quickly that I almost snapped my neck. My cervical pirouette deposited my line of sight directly in front of a tawny midsection, a silver stud staring back at me from her navel, and a quick glance down confirmed that her legs went on forever. Naturally, if I was going to place my order, I had to look up. By forty-five degrees elevation, her flaxen tresses came into view, and, one notch higher, I gazed into eyes as blue as the Artic sky, framed by cheekbones that could cut glass."

Yes, the good professor will keep you interested, even if talk of dopamine, amygdale, cortex and hypothalamus normally makes you brain dead. Berns has a burning desire to understand what humans want. And what he learns is that humans want novelty. "Far from curiosity killing the cat," Berns writes, "the need for novelty has made us who we are – intelligent, curious and constantly seeking the next new thing."

But the author doesn't sit at home reading books to get his answers. Berns heads to Cuba and learns that it's not the amount of money you receive but how you get it. He competes in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament to understand the gratification that completing a challenging puzzle provides. He spends time with chef and writer Peter Kaminsky examining the multisensory experience of taste and goes to Tulane University where deep-brain stimulation is being performed.

The research really heats up when Berns and his wife check out a sadomasochism club in Atlanta and discover that "[d]elicious anticipation can stem from bits of antecedent information, which, in the case of SM, might be the smell of leather or the sight of a riding crop." Berns then turns his attention to participants in the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, to answer the question: Why would 300 people annually put their bodies through such physical and mental pain? Berns believes it is the runners' desire [whether they know it or not] to release dopamine and cortisol in tandem that leads to the desired transforming experience.

Berns ventured to Iceland to scale a dormant volcano, and once there "floated toward the sky, awash in beauty, alone." At last, Professor Berns returns home to rekindle the novelty in the sex life of his marriage.

The ultimate message is that doing something you haven't done before releases dopamine to the brain, "which gooses the action system of your brain." And through this process, a feeling of satisfaction is gained.

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