Programmed For Consumption

I feel productive when I’m reading online. It feels like I’m learning. There is a sense that I’m doing something that will improve my life. It feels important.

I’ve talked to my friends about this and some of them report a similar feeling – if you are sitting in front of a computer reading or typing you MUST be doing something that is important. Facebook is as good an example this – it consumes a lot of time and feels like it is a worthwhile pursuit when you are doing it.

It turns out that we’re hardwired to seek out information because we find it rewarding. Lee Gomes’ Why We’re Powerless To Resist Grazing On Endless Web Data reveals some interesting new information about how the brain responsed to information.

Dr. Biederman first showed a collection of photographs to volunteer test subjects, and found they said they preferred certain kinds of pictures (monkeys in a tree or a group of houses along a river) over others (an empty parking lot or a pile of old paint cans).

The preferred pictures had certain common features, including a good vantage on a landscape and an element of mystery. In one way or another, said Dr. Biederman, they all presented new information that somehow needed to be interpreted.

When he hooked up volunteers to a brain-scanning machine, the preferred pictures were shown to generate much more brain activity than the unpreferred shots. While researchers don’t yet know what exactly these brain scans signify, a likely possibility involves increased production of the brain’s pleasure-enhancing neurotransmitters called opioids.

In other words, coming across what Dr. Biederman calls new and richly interpretable information triggers a chemical reaction that makes us feel good, which in turn causes us to seek out even more of it. The reverse is true as well: We want to avoid not getting those hits because, for one, we are so averse to boredom.

We are almost helpless when it comes to our need to bring in information. We are born junkies for things that make us think. My morning ritual of checking email, my blog reader, and the weather network is a ritual because my brain pumps out the reward chemicals when I do it.

Does it do me any harm? I think so. In all honesty, I don’t think someone can consider themselves fully self-aware if they are addicted to chemicals; even if my brain is producing them, I’m still hooked.

I wouldn’t suggest that we stop using this reward mechanism to serve as the motivation for information seeking behaviors but I do suggest that we gain control over when we go looking for the fix and what we do to serve up that fix. Just because our brain rewards us for reading the latest celebrity gossip doesn’t mean that ingesting this information does anything to improve the quality of life.