Malacandra.me

We are zapping ourselves into exhaustion

We are zapping ourselves into exhaustion

by digby


This piece by Jennifer Senior in the NY Times
addressing an interesting and disturbing phenomenon in the Trump era: the addiction to stimulating news. I know I feel it all the time and it's different than anything I've ever experienced before:

Many evolutionary biologists are fond of pointing out that the human body is not adapted to modern life, which often involves sitting for hours at a time and toiling in artificial light and consuming mounds of processed sugar (“There’s no food in your food,” as the Joan Cusack character says in “Say Anything”). But the same design problem, it could be argued, is true of the human brain: It was not engineered to process the volume of information we’re getting, and at the rate we’re getting it.

“Our brains evolved to help us deal with life during the hunter-gatherer phase of human history, a time when we might encounter no more than a thousand people across the entire span of our lifetime,” writes the neuroscientist Daniel Levitin in “The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.”

Recently, I phoned Levitin. He told me he suspects that humans during the Trump era are unwittingly re-enacting the rat experiments that James Olds and Peter Milner did in the 1950s, wherein the creatures repeatedly pressed a lever to feel an electric jolt to their reward centers. The poor subjects became such hostages to gratification that they stopped eating, drinking, even having sex. Eventually, they died of exhaustion.

Many evolutionary biologists are fond of pointing out that the human body is not adapted to modern life, which often involves sitting for hours at a time and toiling in artificial light and consuming mounds of processed sugar (“There’s no food in your food,” as the Joan Cusack character says in “Say Anything”). But the same design problem, it could be argued, is true of the human brain: It was not engineered to process the volume of information we’re getting, and at the rate we’re getting it.

“Our brains evolved to help us deal with life during the hunter-gatherer phase of human history, a time when we might encounter no more than a thousand people across the entire span of our lifetime,” writes the neuroscientist Daniel Levitin in “The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.”

Recently, I phoned Levitin. He told me he suspects that humans during the Trump era are unwittingly re-enacting the rat experiments that James Olds and Peter Milner did in the 1950s, wherein the creatures repeatedly pressed a lever to feel an electric jolt to their reward centers. The poor subjects became such hostages to gratification that they stopped eating, drinking, even having sex. Eventually, they died of exhaustion.

The business I’m in self-selects for those with a pretty high threshold for those jolts. I stare at my colleagues sometimes and marvel at what a different breed they are, the true exotics of the species: They’re like bugs with eyes all over their heads, evolved to take in several streams of information simultaneously. Walk by their desks, and it looks something like Norad. They’re staring at multiple screens fringed with multiple tabs, while Twitter, email and texts cascade down their phones.

Whereas me? I’m a Cyclops. I tend to see one thing at a time. Before Trump, I could go days without looking at the newspaper. I’m partial to 19th-century novels, and I envy their heroines, who spend their days reading and needlepointing and playing piano. I find it far easier to tolerate the whistling emptiness of boredom than the casino rattle of too much stimulation.

But to opt out of this clanging multiverse is to live in mild estrangement. It’s to feel one’s self become a permanent spectator; to live with the persistent sense that something is always happening elsewhere; to feel old, outlasted, outmatched by the bizarre physics of your own lifetime: The great spinning world has toppled off its axis and rolled away.

It cannot be an accident that the lions of Silicon Valley, who live and die by the information whorl, are bullish on meditation. Bill Gates wrote a blog post a couple of months ago about it, praising the practice for focusing his busy mind. Twitter’s Jack Dorsey meditates, as we all learned from a string of insensitive tweets he recently unleashed from Myanmar. (It’s a fine line between mindfulness and mindlessness, apparently.) When the world’s coming at you in great clouds of 280-character Frisbees, naturally it’s tempting to vanish into the forest dark of your own mind.

Of course, complaints about the unmanageable velocity of the world have been with us since industrialization, if not before. I once joked to my husband that I feared napping because I might miss an indictment. Turns out Henry David Thoreau made a similar complaint in the age of the telegraph. “Hardly a man takes a half-hour’s nap after dinner,” he wrote, “but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks, ‘What’s the news?’ as if the rest of mankind had stood his sentinels.”

I’m not convinced, as some people are, that the Twitter fusillades from the White House are part of a larger strategy of distraction, specifically intended to divert us from this particular administration’s malfeasance and failures. I think our president’s attention span is genuinely scattershot. (“Post-literate,” Michael Wolff called him in “Fire and Fury.” Seems about right.) When I imagine his brain, I imagine a bug zapper in a drizzle. Bzzzzzzzzzzt. Fzzzz. Bzzz fzzz bzzzzzzzzzzt.

But Trump chaos, both intentional and otherwise, has proved a great de facto political strategy, precisely because we are neurologically incapable of handling it. The one thing we know about any interrupted activity is that it takes an awful lot of energy to return to whatever last had our attention.


I am one of those rats zapping myself for stimulation and I think it's possible that I will, in fact, die of exhaustion.

I realize that I'm not a normal American in this instance. I am immersed in this stuff 24/7 and have been for many years. But there is something different now. It's much, much more intense but I'd guess that many millions of normal people are feeling this more than they used to as well.

It's hard to imagine that anyone other than Trump creates this sort of chaos so the danger is that the media will create ways to keep up the intensity. I think we can all guess how that will go.