11 Sep 2009

Of rat brains and sea change

September 11, 2009 501A 1 Comment

Several people mentioned social changes, such as the lack of face-to-face communication skills — which some would argue is both a learned behavior and a practiced skill — and tendency toward instant gratification driven by technology in their responses this week.

Oh look, there’s a biological determinist view out there. Because DNA is destiny, didn’t you know?

The biological determinist perspective (and I use biological instead of genetic here for a reason) is an interesting one, and pretty seductive, especially as put forth by this Slate article by Emily Yoffe:

We actually resemble nothing so much as those legendary lab rats that endlessly pressed a lever to give themselves a little electrical jolt to the brain. While we tap, tap away at our search engines, it appears we are stimulating the same system in our brains that scientists accidentally discovered more than 50 years ago when probing rat skulls.

So it appears we are, indeed, hard-wired to appreciate the vagaries of the Internet:

(xkcd rules.)

(xkcd rules.)

And there’s an upside, too:

It is the mammalian motivational engine that each day gets us out of the bed, or den, or hole to venture forth into the world. [ ... ]For humans, this desire to search is not just about fulfilling our physical needs. 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.

What’s wrong with neurons firing, excited about information and divining meaning? (And if that’s true, and we extend that line of thinking: Humans hardwired to seek information. Information drives interpretation. Meaning derived from interpretation. Search for meaning = genetic belief in God? Is there a gratuitous joke about evangelical Christians in here? OOH, SHINY!)

I hear teachers complain about a lack of discipline in their students all the time. Not as in being unruly, but as in do not have the capacity to sit down and focus. The ADHD generation, if you will. (Current norms indicate ADHD over ADD, right?) So is is the biological determinist argument in opposition to the technological determinist argument? Or do they converge? DNA-drives-action/technology-drives-practice?

As anyone who’s been on a diet can attest, delayed gratification is a learned skill, difficult even with practice. Humans have a much harder time with long-term goals — just look at the financial industry. (Jerks.) (Did Gannett’s going public ruin news? Why isn’t anyone talking about the journalistic ramifications of the company’s doing so, and how it’s helped lead to the current journalism crisis? Aren’t tangents fun?)

Where was I? Oh, rats and desire over satisfaction. The condition of anticipation, if you will. Anticipation is usually more fun than satisfaction, otherwise there would be no poster-on-the-ceiling jokes. Humans clicking enter on Google search for their information jolt. FEED ME INFORMATION.

From Information is Beautiful. Go see.

From Information is Beautiful. Go see.

But, you know, determinist arguments are fun, because they’re kind of a cop-out for human self-indulgence. And what is civilization if not the process of curbing human whims in exchange for the attainment of interpersonal goals, be they co-existence, reproduction, security?

(There’s another digression here from the social sciences part of my brain, but I’ll spare you a whole tangent related to ideas about authority and hegemony. Because no one needs intro to political theory. Except everybody. It’s like statistics. TAKE A STATS CLASS, UNDERGRAD JOURNALISM MAJORS.)

There’s an important question here: Is our children learning?

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One Response to “Of rat brains and sea change”

  1. Twunked says:

    [...] as I wrote about earlier, there are those that suggest we built the machines to fulfill an innate human need. Which would [...]