Monday, October 27, 2014

Why do we waste so much time surfing the internet?

I like to consider myself a pretty productive, focused person.  I teach college, run an art gallery, organize and do things.  But there is one area of my life that flies in the face of all this productivity, and deeply disturbs me.  It is the phenomenon of mindless internet surfing. 

I will check my facebook, click on a link, which leads to another link, and another, and another, all clamoring for my attention.  Often these links lead to things that have no practical use or benefit to my life.  If I look at my search history, it's a strange wormhole.  How did I get from Richard Dawkins, to a link about turtles, to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, to Batman, to a Johnny Depp interview, to minor Marvel villains' wikipedia pages?  And what stops me?  What pulls me out of the wormhole?  Usually, it is some physical need, like being hungry, or having to go to the bathroom.  Other times, it is a generalized anxiety, a kind of existential dread--what the fuck am I doing with my life?  Get me out of this wormhole!

How did I get here?

This phenomenon has puzzled me for a while now.  Today, I read an article which provided some answers.  In an article entitled "Seeking," journalist Emily Yoffe explains some of the neurochemical science underpinning our endless internet searching.  And, to be clear, I'm not talking about research.  I'm talking about all the bullshit we click on instead of research and real learning.  Yoffe cites the decades-long research by neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, who has spent his career mapping the emotional systems of the brain.  He discovered one of our most powerful emotional motivators, which he calls "seeking."  This is what gets us out of bed in the morning, and compels us to engage with the world.  For most animals, this seeking impulse and its neurochemical reward of dopamine is tied to basic survival.  But for modern humans (with our more evolved brains), it is also connected to abstract ideas.

The "seeking" impulse in our brains, and its reward of dopamine (a feel-good neurochemical) is what compels us to keep searching online.  We are like rats pressing the "pleasure" button over and over, in a cycle of desire and reward fulfilled by the endless novelty of the internet.  Unfortunately, the kind of seeking that most of us engage in does not aid our survival.  On the contrary, as writer Nicholas Carr suggests in his article "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"..."our constant internet scrolling is remodeling our brains to make it nearly impossible for us to give sustained attention to a long piece of writing (like a book).  Like lab rats, we keep hitting 'enter' to get our next fix."


The "seeking" impulse in our brains, and the neurochemistry behind it, works like a drug, which can easily lock us in an unproductive and endless loop.  Yoffe explains: "Actually all our electronic communication devices--e-mail, Facebook feeds, texts, Twitter--are feeding the same drive as our searches.  Since we're restless, easily bored creatures, our gadgets give us in abundance qualities the seeking/wanting system finds particularly exciting.  Novelty is one.  Panksepp says the dopamine system is activated by finding somethinig unexpected or by the anticipation of something new.  If the rewards come unexpectedly--as e-mail, texts, updates do--we get even more carried away..."

Psychologist Kent Berrige, who studies how the brain experiences pleasure, compares the "ding" or vibration of a smart phone to the "reward cue" experienced by rats in experiments, who push buttons which give them a neurological charge.  Some rats will push this button repeatedly until they pass out, ignoring basic survival functions.  Yoffe ends her article with an insight from scientist Temple Grandin, who compares our clicking to cats chasing an endlessly moving laser pointer.  "Mindless chasing makes an animal less likely to meet its real needs because it short-circuits intelligent behavior."

I don't own a smart phone, for precisely the reasons Yoffe describes.  I see how these devices, under the guise of "social connection," actually alienate people and make us, frankly, dumber.  Now I've got some science to back up my decision, and some intellectual incentive to consciously choose NOT to fall into the mindless rat-hole of what I call "Internet coma."  I'll stick with books and real humans, and a very conscious use of the internet.  The internet is an amazing, revolutionary tool, but not as it's currently being used by most Americans.  For hope regarding the usefulness of the internet, I must look to other coutries, like Tunisia and Egypt, in which people used sites like Twitter to actually topple regimes.  We've got a long way to go, baby, before we realize the true potential of the internet.  In the meantime, I'll be more conscious of how I spend my precious time on this planet, lest I become another mindless, pleasure-seeking rat.

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