Brain Pickings

Why We Like the New and Shiny: A History and Future of Neophilia

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What five-year-old Albert Einstein can teach us about serendipity and the filter bubble of information.

A newborn baby would stare at a new image for an average of 41 seconds before becoming bored and tuning out on repeated showings — that’s how hard-wired our affinity for novelty is. In New: Understanding Our Need for Novelty and Change, behavioral science writer Winifred Gallagher — whose treatise on the myth of multitasking you might recall — explores the evolutionary, biological, psychological, and cultural forces that drive our deep-seated neophilia, our tendency to ceaselessly seek out the new and different. From how our ability to respond to change saved us from extinction some 800,000 years ago to neophilia’s basic mind-body mechanisms to the profound ways in which the information age has altered our relationship with novelty, Gallagher examines the past and future of the quintessential tug-of-war between our need for survival, which relies on safety and stability, and our desire to thrive, which engenders stimulation, exploration, and innovation.

At this point in our warp-speed information age, our well-being demands that we understand and control our neophilia lest it control us. We already crunch four times more data — e-mail, tweets, searches, music, video, and traditional media — than we did just thirty years ago, and this deluge shows no signs of slackening. To thrive amid unprecedented amounts of novelty, we must shift from being mere seekers of the new to being connoisseurs of it.”

To be sure, Gallagher is careful not to paint a binary picture of good and evil in discussing neophilia, recognizing instead its dimensionality and balance of threat and benefit. She begins by citing a near-mythological anecdote about young Einstein:

A wonderful little story about five-year-old Albert Einstein, who was very slow to speak and whose parents feared he was none too bright, shows us how neophilia works and what it’s for. One day, when he was sick in bed, the boy was given the compass to fiddle with to keep him occupied. The new plaything made him wonder about magnetic fields, which got him interested in physics, and, well, you know the rest. Few of us are Einsteins, but all of us have the same capacity to be curious about something new that sparks the learning and sustained interest that lead to achievements great and small.”

Young Albert Einstein, 1882

From that perspective, neophilia can be a facilitator of serendipity, which can in turn be the gateway to discovery and creativity. The three affective foundations underpinning neophilia — surprise, curiosity, and interest — are referred to as “knowledge emotions,” Gallagher says, because they resemble thoughts in how they spur us to learn. Coupled with the capacity of the brain to act as a “surprise detector,” this makes neophilia a uniquely human adaptive advantage. In fact, as Gallagher points out, the failure to replicate this mechanism in artificial intelligence is the reason why robotic self-driving cars are still less able to detect and react to rapidly changing traffic conditions, and why the Internet is wired to give us more of what we are already looking for, rather than surprise us with something we didn’t know existed but might find infinitely interesting — in other words, why the filter bubble exists.

To survive, you must be aroused by the new and different. To be efficient and productive, however, you must focus your finite mental energy and attention on those novel sights and sounds, thoughts and feelings that somehow matter and screen out the rest. Just as arousal alerts and orients you to new things, the complementary process of adaptation helps you filter out the unimportant ones.”

(Cue in Clay Johnson’s The Information Diet.)

This, of course, is a double-edged sword. As far as the compulsion for novelty goes, a lens of particular urgency to me is that of information neophilia. As the editor of a site that features mostly evergreen content, whose interestingness quotient, meaningfulness, and relevance aren’t correlated with a date stamp, I am constantly troubled by the newsification of the web. The new floats to the top of our collective conscience, leaving boundlessly fascinating, timeless yet timely older “information” — old maps, archival photos, pioneering cinema, vintage design, out-of-print books — to rot away at the bottom, in obscure archives, away from the public eye and thus from our collective imagination.

My hope is that we, as a culture, as a society, and as individuals, will find ways to transcend this voraciousness for novelty and learn to celebrate the layered richness that lies beneath the surface foam of the new — something underlying Gallagher’s rhetoric in New, as she urges us to stay true to neophilia’s evolutionary purpose: to help us adapt, learn, and create new things that are meaningful and purposeful, discarding vacant stimuli as distraction.

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