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The Compulsion to Figure Things Out

by Tom Johnson on Apr 30, 2010
categories: creativity technical-writing

I listened to a podcast from Radiolab titled Stochasticity (meaning randomness) the other day, and it made me look at a few things in an entirely new light.

The hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich tell the story of a lady who developed Parkinson's disease. Parkinson's debilitates muscle movement and control by depleting the dopamine in the brain, they explained. Her doctor gave her a drug called Requip, which countered the dopamine depletion to bring her back to regular movement and control.

One day she took a trip to Las Vegas and played the slot machines. In Las Vegas, she became a compulsive gambler and couldn't stop playing the slot machines. Over the next several years, she drained her entire life savings (300K) playing the slot machines. She later found out that the Requip converted her into a compulsive gambler. After she quit the Requip, her gambling addiction disappeared instantly. And her Parkinson's returned. (Sponsor tip: Get more details on gambling addition symptoms.)

The hosts explained that dopamine doesn't just cause  feelings of elation and excitement, but is also responsible for our desire for pattern recognition. Our brain attempts to figure out the pattern that leads to the reward. Too much dopamine and you get fixed on figuring out patterns. Only with the slot machine, there was no pattern to figure out. The lady saw flashing lights and ringing bells and spinning wheels and cherries and frogs, etc., but there was no pattern she could pinpoint that would lead to the reward. Consequently, she became stuck in a fixated rut to figure out an impossible order behind randomness.

I'm not a compulsive gambler, but there are two things I get a little compulsive about: WordPress and basketball. Sometimes I get so fixated on trying to solve a WordPress problem that I stay up past midnight fiddling around with it, trying to figure out the pattern that leads to the solution. It's the puzzle of figuring out the PHP, the CSS, the XHTML in the right format and order -- the pattern -- that leads to a sweet looking website. Half of the appeal of WordPress is actually the puzzle that it presents, the fiddling and figuring out.

With basketball, it's a fixation on figuring out the exact form -- the arc, the follow-through, the angle of the elbows, the push of the legs -- that leads to a perfect shot. Or the right movement (screens, picks, posts, fast breaks, passing, etc) on a team that leads to a win. Sometimes what I try works, sometimes it doesn't. What is the pattern that results in the figurative ching-ching-ching win, like with slot machines?

It all makes me wonder whether this quasi-compulsive attitude (for my wife, she has addictive behavior for other things, and will stay up until 4 a.m. reading romance novels at times) is due to chemicals such as dopamine in our brains. But now that I've figured out that I'm hooked on figuring things out, maybe that will lessen my desire to figure things out.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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