Today I stumbled over an article written in 2008 in the Wall Street Journal, titled “Why We’re Powerless To Resist Grazing On Endless Web Data”.
The author uses the metaphor of a cat hunting for the red dot produced by a laser pointer to illustrate how human beings hunt for information.
In the same way the cat does not realize the dot can never be caught, the information addict keeps on browsing websites without ever reaching a stop.
The article quotes a neuroscientist from the University of Southern California saying “When you find new information, you get an opioid hit, and we are junkies for those. You might call us ‘infovores.’ “
The same neuroscientist also quotes a study where pictures that are prompting the viewer to interpret or make sense of them, have proven to be more popular than pictures with clear cut (boring) content.
It is a common understanding that the brain creates meaning and connections between seemingly unrelated, random things. It is called Apophenia.
Most of us have had an experience of apophenia more than once. Like when you listen to music on your headphones and passengers and cars seem to be moving rhytmically to your sound of choice. Or when the leftovers on your plate look like a smiley face, etc. Superstitous pratices such as coffee reading are also related to apophenia, of course.
So the brain prefers information where there’s a lot of data to “fill in”.
This is the stuff that gets it hooked.
Advertisement campaigns and Internet memes are a good example of how this works.
In the times of magazines, you quickly reached the point where the information was exhausted. And even during the TV-era, even with 200 channels, you rapidly reached a point of over-saturation where there was nothing interesting enough to keep watching.
To the great joy of our grazing brains, the Internet has changed all that. If you know where to find the good stuff, you can feed your neurons with highly targeted and focused material until they shut down. Instead of the information running out and your brain having to actually process it in a deeper now, now you can simply keep on grazing until the brain’s batteries run out in an ocean of infinite stimulation.
In my opinon, this is a two-sided sword.
On the one hand, we don’t have a clue what long years of information addiction does to a person’s brain. Does it maybe increase brain-activity by stimulating neuronal “muscles”? Or does it wear out our brains if they’re constantly processing stuff?
In the same way our society has largely accepted addictions to TV, shopping and food, information addiction is also becoming part of the norm. Whether you need to stay in touch with your high school friends, be informed about politics and gossip for next party or research stuff for your boss, modern life almost puts you at a disadvantage if you are not inclined towards information addiction.
Also, “information addiction” can be understood as an extreme form of learning. This way, it doesn’t sound so bad anymore, does it? Curiosity for new exciting knowledge, sleepless nights of research and rigorous interpretations to reach new insights is a good thing, right?
Personally, I believe that hunting down information for information’s sake can be a real problem, leading to constant distraction and mental fuzziness. But doing this in a targeted way, with an intention and goal of benefiting others and sharing hopefully ground-breaking insights with the public, is a different story.
In any case, I guess it’s part of what it means to be alive in these times that those two are getting harder and harder to separate. But training oneself to observe the difference might be a good start, in any case.