Is Google Digital Meth?

Sounds outrageous, but perhaps not so far from the truth.

Emily Yoffe’s fascinating article in Slate highlights some research that may explain the popularity of Twitter, the success of the iPhone and how we lose so many hours a day to “the Google.”

Those of you who took psych 101 any time in the last 50 years learned about James Olds’s rat experiments.  Basically, scientists inserted electrodes into the brains of rats so that the rat could self trigger a shock by pressing a small lever.  When inserted into the hypothalamus, they found that the rats would continue to push the lever, over and over, until they collapsed.

The shock was triggering the dopamine circuit in the brain, which scientists concluded must be the “pleasure center.”  Years later, scientists are revising that claim. Upon closer inspection, Washington State University neuroscientist Jaak Pankskep realized that these did not look like happy rats in the throes of ecstasy.  Rather, they were intent rats… searching, seeking and sniffing around crazily.

He concluded that dopamine must control the “seeking” circuit of the brain.

The dopamine circuits “promote states of eagerness and directed purpose,” Panksepp writes. It’s a state humans love to be in. So good does it feel that we seek out activities, or substances, that keep this system aroused—cocaine and amphetamines, drugs of stimulation, are particularly effective at stirring it.

Opiates, on the other hand, control the pleasure center of the brain. The difference is apparent in the behaviors of cocaine and meth addicts who are busy, hyper-active and flit from activity to activity. Opium users, on the other hand tend to stay put in a blissed out existence.

Normally, the “seeking” and “liking” circuits should balance each other out.  “Seeking” promotes activity and curiosity, liking promotes resting and absorbing.  It’s critically important for things like learning, discovery and invention.  But services like Google, Twitter and the iPhone indulge the “seeking” circuit to an extreme degree.  Each makes pressing “the lever” easy and readily accessible.  When you couple this with the fact that dopamine is believed to control our sense of time, you can understand how all those days at the office get away from you.

Anecdotally, this makes a lot of sense.  I sympathize with columnist Nina Shen Rastogi who notes that,  “My boyfriend has threatened to break up with me if I keep whipping out my iPhone to look up random facts about celebrities when we’re out to dinner.”  My brother confessed to sometimes “running searches for the hell of it. Even nonsense searches like ‘hello’ or random words, just to see what comes up.” Maybe this explains why I inexplicably hit “next” on Pandora, even if I like the song – just to see what’s next.

My (lovely) girlfriend raises an interesting point:

“The thing that freaks me out is how much information comes AT us instead of us going TO it. I’m on a quest right now, to keep things from pinging at me so that I’M in control of when I seek it out. I think the information should be there when WE want it and when WE are ready for it. The problem is that we are programmed to drop anything when an email program pings, a phone rings, or a RSS updates.”

As technology becomes more and more ubiquitous and indulging our “seeking center” gets easier and easier, we will need to develop new ways to remain productive. This is the idea behind much of the popular blog, Lifehacker.  On the other hand, software designers looking to design the “next Twitter” will need to keep ‘seeking’ behavior in mind.

But, honestly, I hope they don’t.  It’s hard enough to keep my focus as it is.

The article itself is fascinating and I highly encourage you to read the whole thing.  I’ve linked it at the beginning of the article, but I’ll link it again, in case you missed it.