The Tyranny of the Interesting

The intellect looks for opportunities to enhance pleasure or survive. This search gets reduced to information that the mind takes an interest in. This provides some ego satisfaction and 'mental pleasure.' Mental pleasure is excitement, without any real resolution or satisfaction, however. The interesting isn't felt in the body. Pre-occupation with interesting information can increase the estrangement both from the body, and from other people. The internet, for instance, is an endless supply of the interesting. Ironically, one of the ways to get side-tracked in the Reich and Lowen tradition is to find the ideas interesting!

The world is more than information about the world. One misses contact with the world and others when the senses are used just to obtain information. Over time, using the senses only for symbolically-coded information rather than contact leads to a dulling of the senses.

In some man-made endeavors, having the right idea or information allows relatively quick and complete success. For instance in business, knowing the right move to make is the almost the same as making it. Or knowing how to use software makes the software useful immediately. This experience can produce the impression that the right information instantly leads to success for humans. Clients often come to psychotherapy expecting to find the information or idea that will make everything work.

In nature-made endeavors, like human growth and human happiness, ideas are not instantly translatable into results. Ideas about the conditions of growth can be accurate but they do not by themselves lead to growth--actually staying with the conditions for growth over time does. Psychotherapy clients may often come to accept Reichian and Lowenian ideas but not stay with any practices because human designed systems of production have habituated them to instant results.

Information is only one aspect of perception. Sensation itself is harmonizing and part of satisfaction. However, the brain and the ego have a natural priority for information. For instance browsing the internet has a high informational but a low sensory aspect. A hike in the woods has a low informational but high sensory aspect. The hike in the woods has much more satisfaction potential, but the internet browsing grabs the attention, and many people find themselves browsing until it is too late to go outside! There is another layer to this problem, in that over time, the informational apparatus of the person grows large, but the sensory apparatus atrophies. Relationships, at least non-professional ones, suffer.

Entertainment is itself the start of separating the interesting from the rest of experience. However, there is a trend in entertainment that is pushing this further. On stage, before television, and in the early television era, variety shows were common, that is, one would watch singing, dancing, stand-up comedy etc.. There was no plot. The benefit was a sensory one, not an interestful one. Variety shows cannot make it anymore because they are considered too boring. Now when singing and dancing is shown, it is in the context of some dramatized elimination process. Game shows and sports are not about play of course, but suspenseful processes that provoke interest in what will happen next.

The internet and video gaming both accelerate this process of the informationalization of life. Heavy use of informational technology also has two other troubling effects: attentional diffusion, derealization, dopamine abuse.

There are perhaps, three types of attention, 1) alert, 2) voluntary attention (concentration), and 3) mindfulness (choiceless awareness). Mindfulness is an ideal state that may be rare in our culture but it certainly is not a challenge to finding feeling and purpose. Alert and voluntary attention can be however. Alert is a basically a hard-wired response to novelty or intense stimuli in the environment. The biological response is to 'drop' what one is doing and check it out. Voluntary attention is narrowing focus and concentrating on one task. Voluntary attention and alert are in some sense in opposition--one suppresses the other. It is possible to be overly biased to either. However, overdoing alert tends to cause trouble in employment and academic tasks, whereas overdoing voluntary attention tends toward success in employment and especially academic tasks, but interferes with vitality and spontaneity.

Attention has always had two targets, toward the interesting and toward the important. Small children are skewed toward the interesting and adults are supposed to be skewed toward the important. Of course what is important varies drastically from person to person and situation to situation. But the important has a certain durability to it. The interesting actually is more consistent from person to person, based on the human nervous system and the alert function. There is always an interplay between the interesting and important. Commercial advertising is always an attempt to use the interesting to imbue products with a sense of importance. But often the 'boring' is important. People suffer greatly from boredom when they have a weak sense of the important because they cannot get involved. With self-possession and purpose, the important comes to 'hold interest' The sense of important is a body-based feeling. If the mind judges something to be important but the body doesn't feel it, the interesting will take away attention.

There is no way for any person to determine what is important for another person. But it is possible to tell when another person has only a weak felt sense of the important, because attention seems short and distractible. This is called Attentional Deficit Disorder (ADD)*. With ADD, people are not able to use the feeling of important as an anchor for attention. Instead the anchor of interesting is used. Sometimes the interesting and the important overlap. The interesting however is subject to rapid decay--it is based on novelty or change. The interesting part of things tends to be the start, and the important parts tend to be in the middle and end. With ADD, one tends to start many things and not finish them. Therefore with ADD people feel they have never done anything important, and there is a truth to that. Important is not a aspect intrinsic to an activity, person, or thing, but is an aspect of one's relationship to that activity, person, or thing. Growing up and living in high-stimulus environments seems to skew development toward 'ADD' whatever the underlying tendency.

*This is not meant to be a summation of ADD or ADHD which is a complex patterns of functioning.

Derealization generally is the changing of perception so that the world doesn't seem real. With overuse of information technology, there is a disconnect between actions or points of view and effects in the real world. On the internet, the pseudo-interaction with others allows one to undertake challenges without putting one's ego on the line. For instance if a man flirts with a woman in person, the proximity of the other body and the 'realness' requires ego effort, and produces changes and signals in the body. For the shy perhaps it feels impossible effort. On the internet though, one's mind becomes detached from the body. Unlike the body, the mind has no sense of 'enough' or 'what is real'. Whereas in real life undertakings, the interpersonal and gut-holding aspects involved act as self-limiting and balancing factors. The disinhibition frequently observed in on-line activities is perhaps not so much a cure to repression as it is a failure in reality testing.

'Enriched Picking,' Screen Time, and Dopamine Abuse

The human brain is wired to favor opportunity. Anytime something is found that is promising (though not certain) to improve experience, the mind tends to drop what it is doing and 'follow the trail' to find if there is more of the same. This preference is mediated by dopamine in the reward center of the brain. Traditionally, opportunities were by chance and not that frequent. With the development of retail marketing, it became not just possible, but also good business to manipulate the human response to opportunity. This is the nature of a large store or mall, where the display windows contain the most promising items in order to get shoppers to follow the trail inside. Window shopping became known as a mood lifter because it enhances dopamine. Still, shopping requires some travel and movement and can only be manipulated so much. Hoarding may have an element of manipulating the opportunity response.

But with the advent of browsing and screen applications in the last twenty years, the ability to manipulate the opportunity/reward/dopamine system took an exponential leap. Every click or touch is following a trail. This is truly addicting. I call it 'enriched picking' and and the effects are insidious but cumulative. A situation that provides essentially "no wrong click," indefinitely manipulates a human's wiring to ignore the 'present' if an 'opportunity' for 'future gain' 'pops up'. It does not matter how sound the topics searched, mere screen time past a point will start to change the way the brain works.

Video games were the first to deliberately use this dopamine spigot, to keep people playing. The key is to make most clicks rewarding but just not every single one. This keeps the opportunity seeking aspect going, but keeps real effort and challenge low. But over time blogs, message boards, instant messaging, social-networking sites, and wikipedia all can be addicting because they are naturally imperfect but have an enriched interestingness that the user manipulates. (This contrasts to a book, which has interesting parts but the reader must follow as it is written and does not jump around.)