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Orienteering, Monkey Brains, and the Dopamine Economy


I'm a big fan of orienteering, which is the sport of racing using navigation skills and a map and compass. At a recent orienteering event I was wondering why it felt so satisfying to find colored fabric flags out in the woods. I think it's our monkey brains.

We've got monkey brains. Not the Indiana Jones Temple of Doom type monkey brains, but brains in our heads that have a lot in common with the brains of monkeys. And our monkey brains love hunting and gathering. Our monkey brains love it so much, we are always figuring out ways to hunt and gather. It's an itch we are always looking to scratch, all the time, every day.

It's an amazing gift, our hunting and gathering abilities. Human beings, as well as our monkey friends, are a pattern seeking species. Finding patterns in the world is an incredibly useful skill, when you think about it, enabling success at finding rewards in the wild (edible plants, safe water, etc.) and avoiding hazards (dangerous weather, poisonous critters, and the like). It's so useful a skill, in fact, so critical to our survival, that our body chemistry has evolved to reward us when we use it successfully. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that makes us feel great, and it gets activated not only when we get things we like, but in anticipation of getting things we like. It's the built-in reward for successful hunting and gathering, which reinforces our desire to do it again, and again, and again. Pretty powerful stuff.

In our modern, technology-filled world it's easy to forget our hunter-gatherer roots. At least consciously. Our brains haven't forgotten. We're still wired to be rewarded when we're successful pattern matchers. It's a large part of the reason why even simple games and puzzles can be so attractive to us -- consider Sudoku, Candy Crush, Bejeweled, Tetris, or any of a thousand digital distractions available on now ubiquitous mobile devices. These games trigger dopamine hits in our monkey brains, which keeps us coming back for more. There was an amazing bit of storytelling done on a Radio Lab episode that explores, in one of its segments, the incredible effects of dopamine gone mad and the research of Wolfram Shultz on the brains of monkeys. Check out "Seeking Patterns" online, where a heartbreaking story of dopamine and gambling addiction illustrates how powerful this reward cycle can be.

Not surprisingly, such a powerful human impulse has become a target for commercial endeavors. In an article entitled "Does the Video Game Industry Hold the Keys to the Future of Advertising? Engage Consumers via Brain Chemistry," Steve Hicks, writing for AdWeek, very transparently articulates the strategy for transforming your hunter-gatherer instincts into consumer spending:

In 2009, Apple began allowing developers to make monetary transactions with gamers from within the games, not just an initial purchase. In-App-Purchase (IAP) bears all the hallmarks of a paradigm shift. Not only does it radically alter the market (games that would cost fifty bucks on a console are now free), but it births a whole new philosophy of engaging consumers that works at a brain chemistry level. Call it the dopamine economy.

Game designers talk about a "compulsion loop." Every action within an experience is designed to make you want to do it again. When we feel pleasure, a molecular shower of a substance called dopamine is released in our brains. Sex, nicotine and gambling all stimulate dopamine production. What game designers have figured out is how to directly connect that to commerce. Win or lose, the player is continually micro-rewarded, creating a tiny shower of dopamine molecules. And the best designers know exactly when to start turning those rewards off and create compelling techniques for getting you to spend money to get it back.

The "dopamine economy" is an overt play on our basic instincts, a distortion of a bio-feedback loop designed by evolution to reinforce our amazing skills and abilities into a means to extract money from you, the dopamine addicted consumer. Hicks suggests that the winning strategy for advertisers is "to tap the chemistry in the heads of their customers and do it daily and relentlessly."

Ug. I don't like the idea of advertisers or game designers playing with my brain chemistry. I think our hunter-gatherer skills, and the dopamine hits we derive when we exercise them, are a real thing -- but they deserve to be exercised in a healthful way, for our own benefit not some ad-man's. And so we're back to orienteering...

Successfully locating a colorful fabric panel while navigating through the woods delivers an amazing dopamine rush -- that's why orienteering can feel so satisfying. But it's the real deal, an authentic exercise of the hunter-gatherer reward cycle baked into our brain chemistry. And it involves being physically active in an outdoor setting, which brings a great many other health benefits along with the feel-good dopamine rewards. It's also affordable, as well as being accessible to people of all ages and abilities.

At this recent event, the Cedar Mountain Navigation Race, participants received a map about an hour before the race started. In that hour I made a plan of action for visiting as many "controls" as I could in the time alloted (in this case, four hours).


A few minutes before the start time, we were all gathered for a pre-race briefing. Eric Bone, one of the race organizers, gave us some important details about the course as well as reminders about scoring and penalties for being over time. And then we were off.


There's nothing quite so satisfying as spotting that little tri-panel orienteering marker. It's the thing you've been looking for, and when it comes into view it's a confirmation that you have navigated successfully to this point. Right about now is when the dopamine fires up, rewarding your efforts.


Which is a good thing, because some of the controls were hard to find. Approaching from one direction they can be obscured by vegetation, a low hill, or some other obstruction.


While the same control, from another approach, might be plainly visible.

It was raining on and off throughout the event, but I didn't mind. When I'm chasing down orienteering controls I get really focused, and a little bit of weather is hardly a distraction. I was on the course for almost four hours, covering something like 10-12 miles in that time. I came home exhausted, but as always incredibly satisfied.

Your inner hunter-gatherer deserves some real work and reward. I encourage you to give orienteering a try - you'll get all the dopamine with none of the consumer hangover. The Seattle area has a really active club: the Cascade Orienteering Club. On their website you can find a schedule of upcoming events, where beginner instruction is always offered and compasses are available for rent. There's also a list of permanent orienteering courses. Many of our city and county parks have premanent orienteering markers installed. On the COC website you can download maps and control lists for these course, enabling you to self-serve your own orienteering outings. Regionally, there are other clubs and organizations offering great events. Consider:

Meridian Geographics - Mergeo organizes trail runs, navigation races, and urban orienteering events. The upcoming Rock Creek Ramble navigation race is a favorite of mine. The popular Street Scramble series is an urban version of orienteering.

Columbia River Orienteering Club (CROC) - our neighbors in Oregon have incredible terrain for orienteering. In May I'll be headed down for the Big Muddy event, which is set in some stunning landscapes near Antelope, Oregon.

Hope to see you out there!

#huntandgather #orienteering #dopamine

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