What we can learn from rats

Posted by By at 23 January, at 13 : 11 PM Print

TGR14_Core_SharesThe brain is more easily stimulated than satisfied, writes Louise Bedford.

Have you ever fired up the Google search box for the purposes of finding something relevant to your next task – only to find yourself four hours later amazed by your new found knowledge that a crocodile cannot stick out its tongue or that there iso Betty Rubble in The Flintstones chewable vitamins? ‘Seeking’ is an innate task that has come to obsess humans. In fact we cannot stop doing it any more than a lab rat can stop pressing a lever in a cage in order to get a reward. By seeking out endless inane facts we are stimulating precisely the same centre that James Olds discovered in 1954 when he was investigating how rats’ brains work. Olds and his team stuck an electrode into the rat’s brain and whenever it went to a given location they would give it a small shock. To their surprise the rats kept returning to this same location over and over. Unknown to Olds and his team, their probe was not in its intended place but rather had been placed into the rat’s lateral hypothalamus. It was thought that the electrode was inadvertently stimulating what was initially referred to as the brain’s pleasure centre.

Later experiments seemed to confirm this because rats would undertake tasks that resulted in a small shock to this centre until they collapsed. Later work has cast severe doubt on this notion of a pleasure centre because the animals involved in these experiments seemed to be, to use a technical term, somewhat bonkers. Later experiments involving humans confirmed this observation.

The behaviour that resulted from these human trials has been labelled ‘seeking’. Seeking seems to provide us with an intangible emotional reward – in effect we are born explorers. We are hard wired to look for things – it is not hard to see how this is a valuable evolutionary skill to have.

However, this seeking is an emotional behaviour; we get a high from the process of looking for new things, not actually from finding new things. Unfortunately like a lot of evolutionary behaviours, it may not be all that useful in the new society we have created. We are wired, in effect, for things such as Google to make us stupid.

The question is: how is this paradox of a brain that is more easily stimulated than satisfied relevant for traders? The answer is simple. Fire up your charting package and have a look at your indicator drop down list. Ask yourself how many of these indicators have you tried at one time or another? I can almost guarantee that the answer is close to 100%. The follow-up question is: how many of you have used Google to search for more indicators or tools? And my guess is that this process has not really aided your trading – in fact I would suggest it has actually hindered it. The same is true for system development. I want to separate the search for improved systems from the notion of tinkering. My feeling is that most system design and testing undertaken by traders is actually a form of seeking behaviour.

The reward comes not from finding a new system but rather the process of looking for a new system. We know this to be true because we derive more of a dopamine blast from seeking not finding. This leads to an endless cycle of tinkering  and searching and not actually trading. It is why investment clubs (a profoundly stupid idea) or associations of technical analysts exist. It is not to trade but rather to go through the discovery process of thinking about trading. The task of the trader is to trade and this is why, when you listen to very successful long-term traders, you are stuck by the notion that many of them have not changed their systems in decades. They have overcome the desire to seek…



Excerpted from an article originally published in the February/March 2014 issue of Think & Grow Rich Inc. magazine. If you are a subscriber to Think & Grow Rich Inc. magazine, you will receive this article in your February/March 2014 issue of TGR. If you are not a subscriber, click here to subscribe.

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