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A quick #NeuroThursday this week, on the topic you've all been waiting for: Harry Potter and the Principles of Neural Science!
Credit to @muchredink for suggesting I do this, based on my version of the "Harry Potter & [the closest book to you]" meme a few weeks back.
Not a lot of neuroscience in HP, it's true. But those stories do contain one striking element that has a neuroscience explanation.
Maybe it's just the movies, but did you eventually get infuriated by how Harry kept going "WOW MAGIC IS COOL" after 4 years at Hogwarts?
Nobody in real life says "wow!" over a slightly new variation of familiar stuff – and neuroscience can help us understand why not.
The answer lies in the reward system of the brain. Our brains have specific systems & circuits that drive pleasure and motivation.
In parts of that network, incl. the Ventral Tegmental Area at the brain's base, researchers have found an effect called Reward Expectation.
In a monkey brain (where you can record such things), cells in there activate when the monkey receives a reward. Sort of.
It's not that those cells are active for rewards – rather they activate when the monkey gets an UNEXPECTED reward.
Tell the monkey he's getting a fruit loop, then give him a fruit loop? Barely a twitch. But give him 2 loops and those cells go wild!
It goes in reverse too. If you tell the monkey she's getting a fruit loop, then cruelly deny the treat, those cells get extra-quiet.
(Neurons usually have a non-zero baseline activity level precisely to allow this: so you can move up or down from the default condition.)
What does this mean? Sometimes, how good you *feel* about something isn't about whether it's objectively good – it's about better vs worse.
This is fundamental to human (and monkey) behavior. It's why boredom isn't fun. It's why a gift feels better than a paycheck.
Reward expectation may even be critical to why we have curiosity, and why we take risks. New things are better than existing things!
And most importantly, it's why Harry Potter really shouldn't be wowed by a bigger-inside magic tent at the Quidditch World Cup.
The #NeuroThursday takeaway: our brains are wired to respond to unexpected events, good or ill. Including those caused by lazy writing.
Please send all Harry Potter opinion disagreements to me via email at comments[at]whitehouse[dot]gov.
For that awesome opening image, credit to this (largely unrelated) article: researchgate.net/publication/22…
If you found any magic in this #NeuroThursday, share it around, or check out my other writing! benjaminckinney.com/publications/
Here's the Storify of tonight's #NeuroThursday: Harry Potter and the Principles of Neural Science. storify.com/bckinney/harry…
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