So let’s turn our attention to another part of the brain: the caudate nucleus. The caudate nucleus seems to be play a significant role in certain aspects of cognitive behavior. For one, it is an key component in goal-directed action (our ‘sense of purpose’). When it is damaged in rats, for instance, the rats lose their sense of what they are doing, where they are going, and so on. Likewise, in patients with Parkinson’s Disease, this area of the brain is found to have become damaged. Researchers have also found that in patience with Alzheimer’s Disease, the caudate nucleus has shrunken considerably. With Alzheimer’s, the patient no longer has an idea of where they are going – forgetting even why they may have gone into the next room.
The caudate nucleus also plays a role in long-term memory, learned behaviors, and, most importantly for this discussion, emotional responses to beauty. In one study, when subjects are shown objects of art or played classical pieces – which are generally agreed on as being great works of art – this area of the brain lit up significantly. Like the nucleus accumbens, the caudate nucleus is innervated (fed) by dopamine. So, we feel good when we are doing things that satisfy our understanding of beauty, our sense of purpose, and align, perhaps, with our memories of positive rewards or past learned behaviors.
In this light, it seems that addictive behaviors and the nucleus accumbens can dominate the dopamine which other parts of the brain such as the caudate nucleus require to function properly. If the nucleus accumbens is dominating our general impulses, growing in size as we feed it, then other parts of our brain are depleted. However, since the reward/pleasure center is satisfied we still feel some positive internal, if momentary, satisfaction while our ‘sense of purpose’ suffers.
When we become embroiled in addictive behavior, we can loose sight of our own goals and our actions or health can feel ugly as a result. Whether it’s a pothole or a pit – one hangover or twenty dozen, one Vegas bender or too many trips to the Indian Casino on the 5, sitting on Facebook waiting for that “Like”: it’s all the same response mechanism that keeps getting triggered. It is wearying and draining with little real psycho-spiritual reward.
Some people, whether through supportive community (see the Rat Park experiments) or through some particularly driving will power, or through finding their bliss and their calling at a young age, seem to be more adept at this roller coaster and find a path in the world that feels deeply satisfying. However, most people who find their calling in life end up seem to have to strike out on their own without much guidance or support from their cultural framework.
Many in our modern world self-report a general dissatisfaction with their momentum/purpose and I think this is why so many people have difficulty controlling addictive impulses. Individuals maintain a certain level of decorum and a seemingly healthy level of addictions satisfied by multiple channels kept at relatively low volumes. They drink ‘only on the weekends’ or ‘look at porn only at home when their partner isn’t there’ and ‘only gamble when…’ and ‘only watch TV for X hours a day’ and so on. They trigger the feel good response just enough that it doesn’t drive them to ruin but it also keeps them locked in a cycle that they themselves know is ultimately unrewarding but also seems relatively difficult to snap out of.
Further, people are pushed to work hard but often don’t see the beauty in it – and they don’t feel they are engaged in something that is, in and of itself, beautiful. People become immersed in jobs don’t engage them on a deeper level beyond the purpose of making them money to satisfy whatever their current addictions (high level or low level) are. Our culture and it’s cubicles, it’s check-out lines, it’s advertising which pushes on us the idea that we just aren’t good enough and need more, this driving force of consumerism and shiny bauble syndrome creates very clear separations between function and form.
Early on in life, the child in school doesn’t feel – and isn’t taught to feel – that their work is ‘beautiful’. We make beauty in Art or Music Class, two things which we unequivocally map our values of beauty onto. Economics, Geometry, History, Science, Mathematics, and so on: these are things which are taught in a far less than ‘beautiful’ manner. Furthermore, the child that does excel at any of these other subjects often is seen as the geek or nerd. It’s simply “not cool”. The tragedy is that the art – the elegance – of these subjects is not celebrated. Students are told that these subjects are the most important while ‘the arts’ are merely extra-curricular activities with no real bearing on modern life. It’s no surprise that, as the child grows to an adult, when they look up from their work they don’t see the beauty in it – they were never taught to do so! – and they lose sight of their sense of purpose, instead seeking out some other reward mechanism.
I believe that the more our ideas of beauty (and finding beauty in our work), our sense of purpose, and our deep memory and idea of ourselves are woven together, then it is much less likely we will fall victim to the impulses of our own reward/response mechanism and the more likely we’ll find meaningful rewarding lives and livelihoods.
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