Technology’s Emotional Driver

Chimp using stick  Chimp Using Rock  Bonobo Eating 

I have often considered why man seems so hell-bent on changing his environment. Why humans invent many types of useful objects and techniques, all of which I deem to be technology.

Quite honestly, most philosophical books on this topic do not have an answer. In other words, the motivation behind man’s incredible creativeness is not explained. It remains simply,  a mystery.

From my point of view, such a position is tragic. Humans are by their very nature, technological creatures.  In my opinion, the very thing that separates us from the natural world (although this too is a pont of argument) is our ability to envision an optimal state of existence, and then work towards that state by applying appropriate tools or techniques. We want to create and invent, and deep down within us there seems to be a motivational driver. But sadly, no one seems able to put their finger on it.

However, after listening to an interview with Jaak Panksepp on the Brain Science Podcast, I was stuck with the possibility that man’s primary motivation to create technology could be a specific emotion. 

In brief, Dr. Panksepp has for some time experimented on the emotion centers of animals, and has concluded there are seven primary emotions that can be found within the brains of most mammals. They are; Seeking, Fear, Rage, Lust, Care, Panic, and Play. I won’t discuss them all, but I am very interested in Dr. Panksepp’s ideas on the Seeking system.

According to Panksepp, the Seeking emotion is a primary driver which is within all mammals, and presumably humans. It motivates us to find solutions to imminent problems, the most fundamental of which would be forging for food. However, the Seek emotion is a general goal seeking system. His own words sum up its complex behavior;

… the neuroscience evidence indicates that all mammalian brains do contain a general-purpose SEEKING system designed to actively engage the world, especially its life-sustaining resources. The active and automatized urge to energetically interact with the world and to help integrate associated information about environmental events, increases the future efficiency of behaviors through the emergence of cognitive maps, expectancies, and habit structures (Panksepp, 1986a, 1992a, 1998a).

After listening and reading up to the links above, I would ask anyone to consider whether this very same Seek emotion could be responsible for technology’s creation. Is it so strange? After all, our will to discover and invent seems driven by something. I would hypothesize that Panksepp’s “Seek” is in fact that force. And this would explain why technology is so general in nature. As I have argued in previous posts, technology is not just a simple tool or invention. It is more like a useful idea that helps us shape the world. Yes, technology can be instantiated into an object. However, the concrete form pails against the idea which created it. That is because, the idea within our heads can be passed down to others, and repeated when the desire to do so exerts itself.

However, even if Seek is the primary force behind our inventiveness, there are many more questions to ask. For instance, why is man so capable of going beyond the creative ability of animals? Is the technology we create  intrinsically different from what we see in nature? For example, when beavers build dams, and birds build nests; is that an application of technology? It could very well be that the emotional centers of all our brains are driving this, but I tend to feel our cognitive scope is much higher, and allow man to enter the world of the “unnatural”.

But as interesting as all these questions are, let’s not tackle them all here in this one post. For now, the issue is whether or not the Seek emotion acts as our primary source of invention, or want to invent. I believe it is. And hopefully new experiments in neuroscience will gather enough evidence to make a more objective case.

If you want to have a more technical breakdown of Dr. Jaak Panksepp‘s ideas, I would suggest you also look at the following paper. It is more technical, but still a good read.

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