August 24, 2004

HOW ARE PEOPLE like monkeys? Researchers say our simian cousins are genial slackers at the tasks they are assigned in the laboratory, but as they get closer to the prize, they speed up, work more efficiently and make fewer errors. Sound familiar? Think the day before vacation, when all the office assignments magically get finished up.

Salk Institute scientists think they have found a way to get their monkeys into that state of work frenzy for weeks, which they think is a good thing. Maybe for testing purposes, but please, please don't tell the boss.

The monkeys were given shots of modified DNA that blocked the part of the brain that reacts to dopamine, which influences movement, emotion, motivation and the feeling of pleasure. They seemed to lose their ability to connect the visual signal - a growing gray bar on a screen - with how close they were to another sip of juice (a reward for a monkey, apparently). So they performed their little job - pressing a lever when a signal came on the screen - like "obsessed gamblers," as the Los Angeles Times put it.

The effect lasted for a few weeks, then the monkeys returned to what the scientists called their slacker ways. That's good for research, because it's clearer to compare before and after in the same monkey than by using control groups and test groups. But for the monkey, such a loss of balance - and pleasure - maybe isn't a good thing.

Could be that being a workaholic isn't fun. Could be that blocking their signaler of pleasure could make the monkeys' days pretty dull and gray. One critic has suggested that instead of superworkers, the scientists had created zombies, monkey worker drones.

But that can't happen to people, theoretically. Humans transfer more from short-term memory into long-term storage than monkeys. So one can't fool folks into droning away because they remember how long the project took last time - and that shot they were given a week ago, what it means and who gave it to them.

That's what we're telling the boss, anyway.

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