Wednesday, August 19, 2009

This is your brain on the Web

While I was at SAA last week, Slate published a fascinating piece by Emily Yoffe that summarizes research into the mammalian seeking drive and its connection to our behavior online. The desire to explore the world and to experience sensation isn't limited to things that are pleasurable; mammals -- humans included -- will repeatedly seek out unpleasant stimuli provided that said stimuli are dished out consistently.

Unlike animals, humans seek both physical and abstract stimuli, and the World Wide Web's ability to dish out tidbits of information that we can tie together, analyze, and otherwise manipulate stokes our seeking drive astonishingly well. Moreover, the same brain chemical circuitry that propels our seeking behavior -- that which governs production of the neurotransmitter dopamine -- also regulates our sense of time, which no doubt helps to account for the way that surfing the Web causes many of us to fall into temporal black holes.

Incidentally, stimulant drugs such as cocaine and crystal meth also keep our dopamine circuitry humming. Are you even mildly surprised?

The question of what our constant immersion in the dopamine-rich bath of the Web means for us as individuals, as creators and keepers of records, and as a society has yet to be answered, but the changes that ensue are likely to be both subtle and overt, trivial and profound. Studying past information revolutions may give us some sense of what lies ahead, but we may also be in for all kinds of unanticipated developments. Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night . . . .

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