Ever find yourself sitting down at the computer just for a second to find out what other movie you saw that actress in, only to look up and realize the search has led to an hour of Googling? Thank dopamine.
Yoffe writes that "We are so insatiably curious that we gather data even if it gets us in trouble:"
For humans, this desire to search is not just about fulfilling our physical needs. [Washington State University neuroscientist Jaak] Panksepp says that humans can get just as excited about abstract rewards as tangible ones. He says that when we get thrilled about the world of ideas, about making intellectual connections, about divining meaning, it is the seeking circuits that are firing.
The serendipity to be found in a hyperlinked online environment (Google, Amazon, Wikipedia, IMDB...name your poison) is enough of a reward to keep us locked in a cycle of seeking that next bit of information. We ignore our friends at the party, continually looking over their shoulders for that circulating tray of canapés--although we know that we can gorge ourselves on apps and remain unfulfilled.
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 something unexpected or by the anticipation of something new. If the rewards come unpredictably--as e-mail, texts, updates do--we get even more carried away. No wonder we call it a "CrackBerry."
If humans are seeking machines, we've now created the perfect machines to allow us to seek endlessly. This perhaps should make us cautious.
An endless search for novelty and unpredictability--that sounds like Internet addiction, all right. Like rats pressing that magic lever over and over again, we keep clicking and clicking and clicking...