Why I cannot resist surfing the web

Apparently, scientists are doing research into why I spend so much time surfing the web (and indeed why you are reading this). New information, or information that needs to be analyzed gives us a high. Wall Street Journal has an article about this research:

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.

Apparently, this is hardwired into our brain due to evolutionary forces. Just like cats and laser pointers:

Many cat owners know that the lasers are the easiest way to keep the pet amused. The cats will ceaselessly, maniacally chase it as it’s beamed about the room, literally climbing the walls to capture what they surely regard as some form of ultimate prey.

Obviously, cats are hard-wired to hunt down small, bright objects, like birds. But since nothing in nature is as bright as a laser, they are powerless to resist its charms.


Watching a cat play with a laser, you realize the cat never learns there is no real “prey” there. You can show the cat the pointer, clicking it off and on, and it will remain transfixed.

But we can hope that:

People presumably are smarter than cats, and as we become more familiar with the Web and its torrent of information, maybe we’ll do a better job learning what is useful and what isn’t.

Then again, maybe not.

See full article.

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