By Rod Machado
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There are many ways to activate the pleasure center of a pilot’s brain. Speak the words “Broken Hobbs meter” or “pilot supplies, 75% off,” and most aviators become highly aroused. Then again, a panoramic view from the cockpit almost always stimulates a pilot’s pleasure center. Unlike the repetitive viewing of an artistic painting, a movie, or TV show, the panoramic view is something pilots seldom tire of seeing. After all, when was the last time you heard a pilot say, “This view is killing me—quick, give me the Foggles”?
There’s actually a scientific theory describing why we derive pleasure from large expansive views of the terrain. According to neuroscientist Dr. Irving Biederman in his 2006 article “Perceptual Pleasure and the Brain,” humans are infovores. We are naturally disposed to collect information through our five senses, with the sense of sight absorbing the most information. Biederman says we are biologically engineered to be infovores because it increases our survival potential. For instance, if caveman Thog looked around more often than Grog and spotted a bog through the fog, he’d jog beside the bog, leaving Grog to sink like a log.
Biederman posits that information is so critical to our survival that we’ve developed a neural mechanism that rewards us for its collection. Our reward is a release of feel-good, opioid (endorphin) molecules that bind to opiate receptors on brain cells and modulate our pleasure-pain response to stimuli. Biederman says that the density of these opioid receptors increases along our ventral visual pathway, the section of our brain responsible for recognizing objects and scenes. The most dense opiate receptors are located in an area of our brain called the parahippocampal cortex (don’t poke at it with your finger). This is where “visual information engages our memories.”
Do you see the connection here? A beautiful view—a sight rich in new and novel information—gives us great pleasure. Biederman suggests that viewing something that contains a great deal of interpretable information (based on the associations we make from memory) leads to more neural activity in the parahippocampal cortex. That means an extra jolt of feel-good endorphins. A visual stimulus that provides very little information (a blank wall, for instance) produces less neural stimulation, less activation of associations in memory, and less pleasure. A view of the Grand Canyon, however, is rich in visual information and typically inspires numerous memory associations. The result is often a large release of endorphins.
“But wait,” you say. “I’ve looked at the Grand Canyon 10 times, and now it barely qualifies as a Respectable Gorge. What’s up with that?”
Think about the first time you viewed a painting by Monet. A large number of neural cells were stimulated by the new information on the canvas. The stimulation was greater if the painting caused you to make many new associations in memory. The result is a large release of endorphins—a big jolt of feel-good molecules. But our brains are learning machines. Learning anything means that the total neurons needed to remember what we’ve learned decrease in number over time, while those neurons coding what we’ve learned (our memory of it) grow stronger in their connections with other neurons. Additional viewings of the Monet, therefore, involve less overall neural activity, which translates into fewer endorphins being released. After the 100th viewing of the Monet, you might no longer be as awed by its beauty. Instead, you wonder why anyone would pay so much “monet” to own one.
Beiderman’s theory explains why pilots derive so much pleasure from cockpit vistas. But why don’t we tire of our view from the cockpit? While Biederman doesn’t speak from the pilot’s perspective, I might posit that the view from aloft (up, down, right, and left) is always changing and is seldom the same from moment to moment. There’s a constant flow of new scenery and information that keeps our pleasure center stimulated. Looking out the window of an airplane is similar to having Claude Monet paint scenery on every wall in your home, then quickly repainting those walls as you walk from room to room.
Dr. Biederman’s theory of perceptual pleasure does a lot to explain the experience most pilots have when looking out the window during flight. Now you know why we get high by getting high in an airplane. If, however, you land with a big smile on your face and a customs inspector asks, “Do you have any opiate-like substances on your person?” please don’t say, “Only in my head.”