The Frontal Cortex

Information Addiction

I finally got the internet setup in my new apartment – I won’t bore you with my customer service complaints – and I’ve never been so delighted to waste time on the web. At first, my information vacation was lovely, charming, an experiment in vintage living. It was like traveling back in time to 1994 – I’d wake up, buy an actual newspaper, and leisurely sip my coffee. No blogs, no twitter, no ESPN.com. I’m not going to lie and pretend that, once freed from the yoke of constant email updates, I suddenly found myself reading Tolstoy for hours on end – instead, I mostly watched more mediocre television, went for longer walks and did a better job of writing without interruption. Those are the banal results of my internet-deprivation experiment.

All of which leads me to this recent article in Slate, by Emily Yoffe. It’s an interesting summary of research that seeks to understand the primal human hunger for information, mostly by extending our models of addiction. (If you’re interested in the subject, be sure to check out this recent paper.) Why do we constantly check our email on Sunday morning, or refresh Facebook 100 times a day? What makes new facts so rewarding? For the brain, information is just another rewarding stimulus, an excitatory prompt that leads to the release of neurotransmitter. Here’s Yoffe:

Berridge has proposed that in some addictions the brain becomes sensitized to the wanting cycle of a particular reward. So addicts become obsessively driven to seek the reward, even as the reward itself becomes progressively less rewarding once obtained. “The dopamine system does not have satiety built into it,” Berridge explains. “And under certain conditions it can lead us to irrational wants, excessive wants we’d be better off without.” So we find ourselves letting one Google search lead to another, while often feeling the information is not vital and knowing we should stop. “As long as you sit there, the consumption renews the appetite,” he explains.

Actually all our electronic communication devices–e-mail, Facebook feeds, texts, Twitter–are feeding the same drive as our searches. 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.”

That said, I think it’s worth qualifying this “information equals crack” meme. The brain, as we all know, is not an indiscriminate curiosity machine. Most people don’t want to know more about quantum mechanics, or the actual details of health care reform, or what’s happening in the Afghanistan presidential campaign. In other words, our craving for news tends towards the local and the personal – our curiosity is circumscribed. Why might this be? The answer, I think, has to do with the molecular details of how information triggers rewards.

This isn’t the post for another summary of computational models of dopamine activity – see here and here, if you’re interested – but suffice to say that our brain cells are finely tuned to want more information about stuff which they already know. In essence, these cells work by constantly striving to reduce their “prediction-error signal,” which is the gap between what these cells expect to happen and what actually occurs. If a monkey has been trained to get a squirt of juice everytime a bell is rung, then these dopaminergic cells quickly learn that the bell predicts the sweet reward. As a result, they want more information about that specific rewarding stimulus. What, for instance, predicts the bell? Maybe the scientist flicks a switch before ringing the bell? Or maybe he scratches his nose? Or maybe he simply enters the room? What numerous experiments have found is that our dopamine neurons aren’t interested in responding to the reward itself – instead, they want to find the first reliable bit of information that predicts the reward. This is why we crave new facts: they are means of updating our old facts, of extending our cognitive models forward in time.

This more nuanced version of information addiction also helps explain why even smart people can be so stubbornly ignorant in the face of reality. Here’s one of my favorite examples, which comes from the work of Larry Bartels:

During the first term of Bill Clinton’s presidency, the budget deficit declined by more than 90 percent. However, when Republican voters were asked in 1996 what happened to the deficit under Clinton, more than 55 percent said that it had increased. What’s interesting about this data is that so-called “high-information” voters⎯these are the Republicans who read the newspaper, watch cable news and can identify their representatives in Congress⎯weren’t better informed than “low-information” voters. According to Bartels, the reason knowing more about politics doesn’t erase partisan bias is that voters tend to only assimilate those facts that confirm what they already believe. If a piece of information doesn’t follow Republican talking points⎯and Clinton’s deficit reduction didn’t fit the “tax and spend liberal” stereotype⎯then the information is conveniently ignored.

Why did conservatives ignore this fact? Because it didn’t jive with their preexisting models. Not only was this information not addictive – it was actively repellent. (For the record, I don’t think Democrats would perform much better. One could easily do a study asking liberals about Bush’s enlightened AIDS and Africa policies and I’m sure you’d get a similar result.) The same thing is happening right now with health care reform. I enjoy reading all these articles about uninformed conservative voters getting upset about “death panels” or telling senators to “keep the government away from Medicare”. Why? Because those facts enrich what I already believe – they confirm my lazy liberal stereotypes. So while I’m “addicted” to this information, I’m not particularly interested in any dissonant alternative views. I’m not emotionally motivated to seek them out. Likewise, I care about the twitter feeds of my friends, but I’m not that curious about what’s happening to perfect strangers. The mere thought of perusing someone else’s Facebook page makes my eyes glaze over in boredom.

Why are we so blinkered and blinded and easily bored? The brain is a bounded machine, an information processing device with limited computational power. As a result, we don’t treat all information equally. My salient fact is your irrelevant bit; your necessary detail is my triviality. Here’s the paradox of curiosity: I only want to know more about that which I already know about.

Comments

  1. #1 Pascale
    August 14, 2009

    In my case, I am sitting here during an “unstimulating” conference call, checking my twitterfeed, awaiting new tidbits from folks whose real names I don’t even know. However, I read their blogs and enjoy their thoughts, so I am eager to reinforce those neural circuits.
    Thanks for an interesting post that explains a lot!

  2. #2 Ryan
    August 14, 2009

    Wow…very WoW! It’s this reward path that has lead me to this article! It’s like I’ve been saying it for years and all I’m looking for is the confirmation that the information is valid and that I’m not truely crazy! Remaining in control of these factors has always been the battle but I’ve always identified emotion and addiction as the minds little games it will play! I gain much reward from this information and intend to seek out much more! Truely great observations..brillient!

  3. #3 Alex
    August 14, 2009

    So what blogs do you get RSS updates for thats worth all of this dopamine efflux?

  4. #4 Dave
    August 14, 2009

    Great post, as usual. BTW, you used “jive” when I think you meant to use “jibe.”

  5. #5 Jordon
    August 14, 2009

    I’m curious as to whether or not having core values–political, social, or religious–as such firmly rooted neural networks are entirely necessary.

    On a personal level, I regularly go through periods of deep questioning and confrontation and regularly re-shape my “core” beliefs (which, at the moment, are generally trustbusting liberal, but far from the democratic party and far from Obamaphilia, though I did do campaign work for him leading up to the election), which, needless to say is very painful. I regularly wrestle with facts concerning deficits and tax breaks and tax revenues and find the work do be quite emotionally devastating, yet I choose not to ignore it (and often wish I could be the type, like Rush Limbaugh or Lou Dobbs, who does).

    The question asks for a conjectural account of a society raised without core beliefs. If we raise our children with no religion, with no politics, and even no history until their own neural maturity and substitute all these things with a firm grounding in the scientific method, critical thinking, math, reasoning, and rationality, would they be missing something important? In their adulthoods, would they end up forming beliefs just as biased and ignorant as those of our pundits today?

  6. #6 Sandip Niyogi
    August 15, 2009

    A Resourceful, Evaluative, Maximizing Model (REMM)is used to describe human behaviour, which I feel is the superset of our inclinations towards information. In the ‘sickness of not knowing’ thread, I have been developing how unprocessed information leads to stress in terms of chemical reaction end products and this stress which would be characterized as glucocorticoid concentrations above basal levels, constantly, maybe the chemical signature of addiction?

  7. #7 Ali
    August 15, 2009

    I find this fascinating (not suprising–it feeds my need for more neurotrivia). I’m going to head over to the links given, after I’ve posted this, but I’m wondering if a similar study might be done with an autistic population.

    Those of us on the spectrum are often diagnosed (especially those of us who get the diagnosis as adults) because we have specialized interests that we pursue passionately. My interests bounce around a lot more than the average aspie or autie, but a strong and long-lasting one is autism, itself, along with related issues. It would be very neat to see this research done again with an ASD population; the perseverative interest aspect of autism may mean that the “need to know,” as it were, is stronger and has a biological basis in this group. I would be interested in also seeing related subpopulations, like ADD/ADHD, also separated out and studied.

  8. #8 Anibal
    August 15, 2009

    The late cognitive psychologist George A. Miller, famous for his quasi-pitagorical paper (The Magic Number Seven Plus or minus Two) used to say we are all “INFORMIVORES”

  9. #9 seks
    August 15, 2009

    Connecting weather with climate is a tricky thing. Some thoughts… one very interesting result of GCMs would be the projected locations of low and high pressure areas with a higher tropospheric energy (stored there

  10. #10 Bob
    August 15, 2009

    Brain: an apparatus with which we think we think.
    Ambrose Bierce

  11. #11 ed
    August 16, 2009

    For the record, I don’t think Democrats would perform much better….

    In fact, Bartels does cite study that shows just that:

    “For example, in a 1988 survey a majority of respondents who described themselves as strong Democrats said that inflation had “gotten worse” over the eight years of the Reagan administration; in fact, it had fallen from 13.5 percent in 1980 to 4.1 percent in 1988.”

    http://www.wilsoncenter.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=wq.print&essay_id=478918&stoplayout=true

    I think this example is even more striking than the other one. People have no personal experience of “the deficit,” they only know what they read and hear. But for inflation you have lots of personal experience. You could tell inflation was lower every time you went to the grocery store, even if you never read a newspaper.

  12. #12 Nerissa Belcher
    August 16, 2009

    In general people do not voluntarily acquire information best for their success. Instead they avidly absorb information and express behaviors that support their identity. This can be fun to play with. For example, if you’re straight decide for a week to focus on life “as if” you’re gay. You might want to run this by your opposite sex significant other first. :)

    Incidentally, and in reply to Jordan, “as if” techniques only work if you accept your identity premise(s) as your core values, even if only temporarily as a break from your regular life. If you are not willing to value your beliefs then you’re trying to play a game without rules.

  13. #13 Vytas Gaizutis
    August 16, 2009

    I wonder how much of a role the amygdala plays. Is it all about seeking reward, or is at least some of it avoidance of threat (fear, discomfort)? Here’s a possible scenario:

    Exploring new ideas (information), especially those contrary to one’s own models, places those firmly held concepts in jeopardy. We tend to be protective of our models; in some ways, they are an extension of our selves. Opposing ideas pose a threat. Threats fire the amygdala, and the whole flight, fight, freeze package. Discovering that one’s cherished beliefs in something are wrong is akin to being pushed off a cliff. Clearly, this is something we’d prefer to avoid. There are times we actively seek such thrills (roller coasters, for example), but only on our terms at the time and place we define.

    So is it possible that we want to avoid triggering discomfort (an attack of our cognitive possessions: concepts, ideas) while at the same time seeking things that give us pleasure or a sense of reward? I suspect it is both.

  14. #14 Halı yıkama makinası
    August 17, 2009

    thanx

  15. #15 Dr. M. A. Greenstein
    August 17, 2009

    Jonah, Saw the article this mo 2. Fascinating!

    Writer’s question for you: I get the analog metaphor of “Brain is a machine” but as an info-processing system, it transcends the mechanistic metaphor, despite some neuroscientists’ efforts to reduce it to a mechanistic model.

    Why persist in using the metaphor?

    Synaptically yours,

    Dr. G.

  16. #16 Gilbert Wesley Purdy
    August 17, 2009

    Several years ago a major hurricane knocked out the power, where I lived, for two weeks. I’d loaded in ice so I had food and drink available. But, otherwise, I listened to a few minutes of radio a day and read vast amounts by candle light enhanced by a wide beam flashlight suspended from the ceiling. The sky was awash with stars at night.

    I finished the final chapters of Proust’s Remembrance, read works of philosophy that I’d long been meaning to get to, pre-20th century poetry and much more, all of it paced for another (pre-television) world that had time to take its time. It was a delightful experience and when the power returned the world seemed a much less civilized and a much more harried place. After a few days, however, I was scouring the Internet for interesting information with only a vague recollection that there were other ways to live life with other advantages.

    Cher Lehrer, I picked up your Proust was a Neuroscientist a few weeks ago. I wasn’t able to get ahold of the Miami-Dade Public Library copy, in order to sample it, because it is constantly off the shelf. Anyway, I felt I had reason to believe — having read some of your Internet jottings — that it would turn out to be worth the time and money. Congratulations on your remarkable and growing success.

  17. #17 John1388
    August 17, 2009

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  18. #18 WT
    August 19, 2009

    Your blog is always frustrating. Whenever I visit, I have to read every article on the front page. It ruins my whole ADD-style web browsing. Good work.

  19. #19 Bob Nease
    August 30, 2009

    Great stuff. Question: if our dopamine neurons are looking to reduce prediction-error signal, why ignore information that’s contrary to expectation? It would seem to me that such observations would carry (at least potentially) a lot of information. Is there a threshold level of “disconfirmation” above which we flip into ignore mode?

  20. #20 sld B120
    August 30, 2009

    I would not consider new information to be so much of a reward as a privilege. It is interesting to get onto Facebook and see what new things other people are doing. I do agree with Lehrer when he says that it isn’t interesting to look on the page of a complete stranger. It does not really give me a personal reward, though. If you are bored, it is just entertaining to Google or Facebook search random things. A reward is something that a person receives for completing a certain task assigned to them. Finding out new information is not necessarily assigned to a person, people just have a natural drive to know more.

    The article says, “Here’s the paradox of curiosity: I only want to know more about that which I already know about.”

    I only somewhat agree with this statement because people want to also learn things that they are brand new to. For example, in high school, students take classes that they are curious about to learn something new, not to learn more about a topic they are familiar with.

  21. #21 Vigrx
    December 25, 2009

    Well I dream that this post is something which necessity more attention of your readers.

  22. #22 whtvr
    March 31, 2010

    A distinction should be made between in formation addiction and BS addiction.An addictive quest for scientific or academic information cannot be lumped into the same paradigm as the average Twitterer or ‘twit’ as I call them.Most of the ‘information passed on Twitter and Farcebook is inane, largely inconsequential and generally not retained in any significant volume or organised structure.

  23. #24 rawimanuraMom
    October 14, 2010

    Enabling laws served to increase the amount of health insurance sold in states. http://insuranceinstates.com/california/San%20Francisco/Philip%20Lee%20Insurance/94109/

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    November 10, 2010

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    January 25, 2011

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    June 21, 2011

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  29. #30 Sas
    September 11, 2011

    I realise this article is ancient, but I wanted to comment since I feel this is something that affects me much more than the average person. In fact I found the article doing a search for “information addiction” (although I’ve visited this blog many times before) since I wanted to get some perspective on my seemingly unquenchable thirst for knowledge. I feel that, for me, it is bordering on a “real” addiction, that is, it isn’t just an addiction in the sense that I want more and more of it, and find it difficult to stop myself, but also in the sense that it is actually having a very detrimental effect on my life. I find it so hard to tear myself away from the computer; even when I do I will find myself drawn to reading a book or newspaper, and even when I manage to stop reading I’ve always got the radio burbling away in the background. Thankfully it doesn’t make me a total social recluse – I also love to get information via conversation with others, and I often check facebook several times a day too. The thing is, it doesn’t feel “bad” when I’m doing it, because I don’t fill my head with mindless trivia, I’m interested in topics that most people would consider intellectual or useful to know. It’s easy to justify doing something if it seems educational, or feels like it’s helping to cement my bonds with my friends & family (e.g. facebook), or if it seems that knowing the information will in some way make me a “better person”, or that it will just have some practical application in my life. One way I think I differ slightly from what you describe here is that I’m more drawn to “new” information than I am to things that just back up what I already know (although I’m not immune to the lure of having my beliefs confirmed!). Actually, I quite like having my ideas challenged or getting a new perspective on something!

    The trouble is, this insatiable need to feed my mind is really getting in the way of me being productive. I spend all day on the internet instead of getting things done, and my todo list just gets longer and longer while I stuff my brain with more and more information. I don’t have a job at the moment, and I’m supposed to be looking for one, but I keep finding myself getting sucked back in to surfing the web. One little google search can mean my entire day gets taken over by following one link after another. I end up being late to pick my kids up from school because I got so sucked into reading something that I didn’t see the time, and I don’t manage to achieve a single one of the things my husband asks me to do while he’s at work because I’ve been too distracted by having all of the world’s knowledge at my fingertips.

    The problem with an addiction like this is that it’s hard to deal with it the same way you would deal with another addiction, because learning isn’t a bad thing. Drinking, smoking, doing drugs or whatever are all things that you can easily justify quitting altogether – they aren’t intrinsically “good” things, whereas learning is something that any sane intelligent person would say is a positive thing. I don’t want to totally disconnect from the internet, because it is hugely useful in my day-to-day life (I was hopeless at managing my calendar & todo list before I switched to online ones, and obviously email is the primary means of communication these days so I can’t just stop using it), and anyway, even without the internet I’d still continue these behaviours, just with printed media instead (back in the pre-internet days I was the one with my head constantly stuck in a book or newspaper!). I obviously have no desire at all to stop feeding my mind altogether, but I do need to find a way to get it under some control, because it is actually ruining my life.

    The one positive of this addiction is that I don’t know the meaning of the word bored! There is always information to be gathered somewhere…

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    November 30, 2011

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