A recent study published in the Journal of Neuroscience by researchers at the University of British Columbia made headlines by showing a link between audio-visual stimulation and risky decision-making. The study demonstrated that it was possible to alter the behaviour of rats to make poor decisions by exposing them to flashing lights and sound.
Knowing that there's no one in the world that enjoys staring at bright flashing lights and listening to pounding music more than ravers, I hit up Michael Barrus, one of the co-authors of the paper, to see if there's any link between the study and my typical Saturday night.
THUMP: Do rats really love bright flashing lights as much as humans?
Michael Barrus: We found the rats had a perfect preference for more intense stimuli, which very plainly speaks to this basic appeal of complex stimuli, like with raves. [In the study] there was the equivalent of a dosing effect, like with drugs—the more drug you give them, the bigger the effects are. It was the same way with the lights. The more complex the lights were, the more they seemed to like them.
Was your research groundbreaking because of the addition of this audio-visual stimuli?
Yeah, exactly. That's why we got so much attention; no one had really paired decision-making with stimulus before. No one had put it together to be like, "Can these flashing lights fuck up an animal's decision making? Can it make them make bad decisions?"
Plenty of people have shown that situational cues can promote drug use with people. The classic example would be that crack addicts feel really intense feelings of craving when they see a crack pipe or they are in environments where they used to get high.
In a very loose, non-scientifically rigorous type way, the way this would relate to raves would be that taking these intense stimuli—the bitter taste of molly or the flashing lights—you start to have all these [pleasurable] associations built in. You are reinforcing this relationship between these cues and the environment: the lights, the taste, and the people you're with.
Then, the possibility is that you are pairing these really intense stimuli with things that maybe might not be good decisions, whatever they are—getting too high, or staying out too late, or whatever. These cues can overcome your best decision-making impulses and drive you to do things that you otherwise wouldn't.
You were looking specifically at the chemical dopamine in the brain during this study, what is its relationship with drug usage?
If you are taking a drug that's increasing the effects of dopamine—and almost every illicit drug does this—and you're going into an environment with this really intense stimuli, then the drug is going to make that stuff more significant. It's going to wrap back around and tie it to the drug, so that drug is going to create more wanting for the stimuli and the stimuli is going to create more wanting for the drug. It's going to be like this feedback loop on itself that encourages both of these things: going into that environment, and taking the drug when you're in that environment.
Where did your interest in "risk" and decision-making come from?
I grew up just south of San Francisco, surfing. I would have buddies who were surfing mavericks and giant waves and shit when they were 16 and I never had the balls for it. So I wondered, what's different in my brain compared to these guys' brains? How come we can both see the same amount of risk and something allows them to go and do this, but it doesn't allow me?
This interview was edited for clarity and length.
Gigen is on Twitter.