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Saturday, October 22, 2011

One Track Minds: The Surprising Psychology of the Internet (new book from yours truly!)

Here's my new book, with twice the knowledge and only half the stupidity of my other stuff

My book, in 1000 words (actually, 1,008 words)

Occam’s razor: Tool used by the medieval King Occam of Slovenia to cut the heads off philosophers who rambled on and on. It was later used to describe the logical principle that cut off rambling arguments and replaced with simpler ones, although it may be argued that King Occam had the better idea.

One of the problems with books that have a big idea is that the big idea can be easily communicated in a page or so, leaving the writer with the problem of how to fill in the rest of his opus, which he promptly does by adding the history of the middling ideas leading to his great idea, the great implications of his great idea, repeating his great idea in multiple variations, or just explaining his idea to begin with. Given my own bright idea, this author decided to go through the route of explanation, which if deleted from the manuscript, gives you this page. So here’s the main idea of the book, served not by explanation but analogy, which is thankfully much shorter. 

So I present to you this tale that tells the main idea of our book. Let’s say that you are a tailor, continually in need of needles to pursue your trade.  Consider if you would a haystack, and the fact that for some reason your needles can only be found in the haystack. An inefficient state of affairs to be sure, resulting in your need to painstakingly go through a lot of straw to get to your needle. Let’s say that in your wisdom you design a ‘search engine’ (i.e. a big magnet on a string) that will allow you to sort through all that straw to get to your needles. Passing the magnet over the haystack, you find not only your needle, but lots of needles of every color, form, and shape. The first needle does what you need, but each additional needle is of interest also, but not as much. Nonetheless, you end up spending much more time than you would like looking at all the fine needles in your collection, which you eventually look back ruefully as a big waste of time. In other words, whereas the haystack caused you to waste your time looking for a needle, a stack of needles caused you to waste your time looking at needles.

But wait you say, isn’t looking at all those extra needles rational as well, and represents a free and unfettered choice guided by the fact that all those extra needles are of inherent interest?  That’s a fine point if people behaved like a computer, which they don’t. The analogy instead is more like a steam engine, which has to get fired up before it can ever get going, and often can’t stop when it does. Similarly, when we are faced with a demand for performance, the mind and body has to prepare itself or get ‘fired up’ for performance, but stopping is another matter. Get in place to run a race, and your muscles will tense to prepare you for a quick release, see a plate of tasty food, and you will salivate to prepare for consuming the food, and perceive a lot of novel and salient information, and your attention will perk up so you can process that information efficiently. But when we pay attention to novel information, do you stop when you’ve had enough? Well no. That’s because perking attention is not a just a cognitive activity, but an affective one as well, as our ability to consume information efficiently depends upon a non-conscious reason to want to stay on task, and that’s where affect comes in. In other words, to process information effectively, we must ‘want’ to do so, and wanting ‘feels good’. Thus to keep on task, our brains prejudice our immediate behavior in service of an immediate goal, namely processing important information in a timely way, and it does so by temporarily skewing the momentary importance or ‘incentive salience’ of behavior.  The brain does this by releasing the neuro-chemical or ‘neuro-modulator’ dopamine that modulates or changes (in this case increases) the rate of firing of arrays of neurons in the brain. Dopamine increases the efficiency of learning, increases alertness, and causes a positive affective state that spurs us on. Dopamine is the source of the common temptations that cause us stray from our long term goals. The temptations of sex, eating, and other pleasures all implicate dopamine activity. However, as the word temptation implies we normally do not conflate the momentary temptation to eat with the long term value of eating reasonably. In other words, temptation represents the urge to take our pleasures in the moment without regard to their long term advisability. Moreover, temptation can grow if we perceive more of what we want, thus we are more tempted to eat when we are confronted with a sumptuous buffet, have sex when we look at pornography, etc.  Similarly, when we are presented with a rich informative environment such as the web, the temptation to remain in that environment increases, and we end up overstaying our welcome on sites that remain affectively important even after their logical importance wanes.  The negative results are manifold, and result in regret and unhappiness over time ill spent, a disruption of attention and memory due to constant distractive interruptions (e.g. checking email or social media), and the anxiety and tension due to the constant indecision and confusion this brings to daily decision making.

So how can you deal with this problem? The procedures are simple, starting with a radical reduction in distraction, but first you need a good explanation, or understanding, hence this book. As with any important problem, explanation is key, for without it one can be easily swayed by rationalization, demagoguery, and outright fakery. In other words, my argument must not just seem right, it must be right, and to be right it must be clear, concrete, and above all easily testable or refutable. That is the intended purpose and lesson of this book. 

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