Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Ventral Striatum Celebration Syndrome

Photo from eScienceCommon of Emory University

Feature Entry: The Ventral Striatum Celebration Syndrome

The Ventral Striatum is part of the cerebral area of the human brain. It is wired to other parts that direct action to complete specific goals. Once the goal is achieved, the ventral striatum begins firing rapid bursts of electrical impulses as if in celebration of the accomplishment.

Specific goal directed behavior is labor intensive in terms of attention. Neuropsychologists use the word “controlled” rather than “automatic” to define this type of attention. Controlled attention is slow, demanding, serial, and volitional (can be turned on or off). It is mentally fatiguing as compared to automatic attention which is below the awareness level, fast and relatively pain free in terms effort.

The MoneyWalker uses the ventral striatum as a key aspect of a motivation system to persevere in the walking habit. Each 4 to 5 mile walk begins with a goal to find lost coins. Active controlled attention processes guide an active search for coins along curbs, in parking lots, coin dispensing machines, and dozens of other places where people lose coins. When a coin is found, a mental joy occurs. The ventral Striatum is leading a celebration in the brain. The feelings of celebration are highly reinforcing.

What follows next is a gift to the discerning neuroscientists that might chance upon this blog. I call it the ventral striatum celebration syndrome (VSCS). As stated, searching and finding a lost coin along curbs, streets, and other byways is attention demanding. The endless figure/ground combinations are loaded with false positive coin finds. Also, the constant scanning and sweeping of the human eye over block after block of terrain is moment by moment fruitless, but suddenly a coin registers on the foveal region of the retina. After quick confirmation, the ventral striatum leads a celebration of victory.

It is the victory celebration that presents the problem. After years of experiencing money finds, the MoneyWalker has learned that many times multiple coins are lost, not just one coin. What often happens is that the additional coins are not detected. If not careful, the finder will just walk away after the initial find leaving other coins in the general region undetected. It seems that the cerebral functions that control visual searching join the celebration and stop their vigilance for finding coins. The entire scan and search attention demanding process seems to say, “Mission accomplished, Miller time!” I am not sure how many coins I have left behind because of the syndrome. Now after a coin is find, I force the control processes to continue the search even when they want to party.

O.K. neuroscientists, go do your work. The MoneyWalker has done the heavy lifting; the research question has been framed. Get yourself a grant, collect the data, and get it published before someone beats you out. Need another rationale, what about cell phones and driving? I wonder what happens to a driver’s attention when the screen announces a long awaited important call. Could that accident inducing distraction be caused by the VSCS?

When that “accepted” letter from Attention, Perception & Psychophysics comes in the mail, the celebration inside your head is being conducted by your ventral striatum. And just try doing some other work during the party. Don’t forget to give the old MoneyWalker a plug.



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