Maxed Out 

The dance of the nucleus accumbens and the insula


I haven’t been to a fortune teller since the time I let a nascent, ultimately unsuccessful, girlfriend talk me into squandering twenty bucks on one in a funky, hippie, rundown corner of San Francisco. Frankly, I’m happy to remain blissfully ignorant about the future. If you believe one of the architectural tenets of science fiction — or is that Christianity — there’s nothing you can really do about the future anyway. And if, by some miracle or twist of plot, you actually did manage to change the future, well, everything would change and all humanity might be transformed into pus-eating microbes or something even less evolved… compassionate conservatives perhaps.

But if there is one thing about which I am certain, futurewise, it’s that my nucleus accumbens is about to lay a beatin’ on my insula that’ll leave me dazed and confused and suffering from a raging case of post-purchase dissonance so severe it’ll make the worst hangover I’ve ever had seem like a fond memory.

I only recently discovered I had a nucleus accumbens. Don’t laugh, you have one too. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours. But it’ll take an MRI machine to see it. It’s a region of the brain loaded with dopamine receptors that get all excited whenever we experience, or even anticipate experiencing, something pleasant. Think cold beer after a hot bike ride, new skis on opening day, 60cm of white smoke powder on your birthday. All those things make your nucleus accumbens dance like a drunken sailor on VE day.

The insula is another region of the brain, a neighbourhood of very prim homes with painfully manicured lawns and not a speck of graffiti or litter, certainly no dog poop on the sidewalks. It’s the part of the brain that gets switched on when you smell something gross, believe the guy you just called a pussy at the bar is about to wipe the floor with you or turn on the television and discover George Bush is lying, er, addressing the nation on every channel in the 500 channel universe at the exact moment you want to chill on the couch.

Brain scientists have known about the nucleus accumbens and the insula for long enough now that they’ve finally begun to figure out how the two dance together. They’ve known about them long enough that they’ve even reached out and embraced other scientific and pseudo-scientific disciplines to understand how these two areas of the brain fight each other like cats and dogs when it comes to the life-defining task of shopping. Yes, shopping.


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