The brain habituates itself to repeated stimuli.  This is a fancy way of saying that anything you do repeatedly, over a length of time, you get really good at.  Please perform the following 1000 times a day, for 1000 days:

  • Throw a hatchet at a pine tree
  • Listen to 'Bye Bye Bye' while cooking pancakes
  • Drink a triple espresso, black

By the end of the 1000 days, the weight of the axehead, the bitterness of the coffee beans, the cherubic vocal stylings of a young Justin Timberlake, these things that were once clumsy and unfamiliar to your brain will become routine and automatic.  More than this, your brain, ever the eager puppy, will begin to anticipate and prepare for these actions when you enter whatever context in which you typically perform them.  Lift the hatchet handle, and your arm's nerves and muscles prime for the throw.  Sit down in Bessie, your ol' coffee sippin' recliner, and the buds on your tongue will literally start to taste the roast.  And from that point forward, the first few (dozen, hundred) times you sit down in ol' Bessie and espresso does not arrive at your lips, you will experience a profound and unpleasant disorientation.  

The faces of expertise and addiction are not so different, yes? You might say they share a synaptic grandparent.  

I'm trying to explain this study to myself.  Researchers asked participants to sit and do nothing for 15 minutes. Just sit in a quiet room, and do nothing.  At this point, I should mention that participants also had a small device they could use to give themselves an electric shock.  That is relevant.  

Because 2/3 of men and 1/4 of women in the study, avoiding nothing, shocked themselves.  

Let's return to Bessie. We sit down, and the coffee does not arrive, and we are dizzy, and we are irritable. And then someone shows up  (let's say, for the purpose of visualization, Rob Schneider. Let's say he could use the check), and offers us a cup of coffee grinds brewed in hot vinegar.  In our state of agitated desire, how many of us would take a sip?  Let us say: somewhere between 1/4 and 2/3, inclusive.  

And so we begin to unpack this shocking study.  I immediately apologize for that sentence.

From birth, our brains habituate to input.  We first become accustomed to merely having senses - light, sound, cold, smooth. As we age, we habituate to basic inputs and train on progressively more complex experiences - first balance, then walking, then tying a shoe. We habituate all the way to slamming a dunk.  I don't know what comes after that in the skill tree.  I'm still gathering the XP.

Aside from the physical, we also habituate on the abstract, the conceptual.  Within a year or so, babies grasp symbolic thought - a mental image can represent a thing in the world, and their imaginations explode like a supernova.  A sound can represent an object, and thus language blossoms. With language, we construct our parallel worlds of identity and ideas and bias and story, the comic and grotesque caricatures of what we see and taste and touch.

A single idea. Information. Datum. We take a bite from the apple as babies, and we troll the orchard for the remainder of our lives. We subsist on information, funnel it like porridge into the bowl behind our eyes. With each progressive technological advancement that improves the dissemination of information - writing, printing, broadcasting, and (now) facebooking, redditing, tweeting and tumbling - we've widened the funnel, thickened the stream.  We fill our bellies from dawn to dusk on information slurry. We carry around snacks in our pockets.  Soon, we will strap our dispensers, like beer helmets, to our heads so that we can slurp ceaselessly as we travel from screen to screen.  

This is by no means some anti-technology screed, I only mean to describe what is evident. Now imagine the funnel is narrowed or stopped. The porridge trickles and halts. Imagine the hunger.

Please perform the following 1000 times a day, for 1000 days:

  • Check Facebook

Then sit in a quiet room for fifteen minutes. In your empty time, contemplate a small device sitting before you that will deliver a shock to your hand when you press a button.  A slight shock - probably. Probably. Right? 


Max HawkinsComment