March 12th, 2008

Addicted to Web Surfing

Supposedly, once you start surfing, you can’t stop.  We are all information junkies and just can’t seem to get enough of it.  Reported in the Wall Street Journal:

“What is it about a Web site that might make it literally irresistible? Clues are offered by research conducted by Irving Biederman, a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California, who is interested in the evolutionary and biological basis of the human need for 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.

“It is something we seem hard-wired to do, says Dr. Biederman. When you find new information, you get an opioid hit, and we are junkies for those. You might call us ‘infovores.’

“For most of human history, there was little chance of overdosing on information, because any one day in the Olduvai Gorge was a lot like any other. Today, though, we can find in the course of a few hours online more information than our ancient ancestors could in their whole lives.

“…technology is playing a trick on us. We are programmed for scarcity and can’t dial back when something is abundant.”

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