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Read long stuff, have real conversations, spend the time, think

Reading on a KindleWord is, we get a dopamine rush from rooting around for things on the Internet. It stimulates our lateral hypothalamus. So tell your partner, tell your Mom, it’s not your fault that you can’t stop searching for stuff on the 'net.

But that doesn’t mean it’s ideal. Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp named the phenomenon behind this (it’s a craving really) seeking. And we’ve learned that “animals in captivity would prefer to have to search for their food than to have it delivered to them”.
Wow! This explains me, my teenagers, my friends, my colleagues, my Mom, almost everyone I know.
But favoring the hunt over the consumption, as we seem to do, and favoring endless seeking over taking in and truly digesting new information and ideas, is an incomplete act. Tweets (140 characters max) or online news snippets or soundbites, or the new picture of a pop star you find fascinating, or your friends’ Facebook updates, or a top 10 list with a headline you couldn’t resist, don’t take you all that far.
Two things are missing with our tapas-style consumption of information: deeper insights from others, and deeper thought from ourselves. Instead of reading more deeply to learn more, you just go look at the next item. Instead of developing your thoughts about what you’ve found, and gaining new, deeper insights, you jump to another hors-d'œuvre tray, and sample another delectable snack.
But this is a blog about foresight, not neuroscience. So why did this research catch my eye? It strengthens my view that we have to go to some trouble to deepen our experiences and understanding, which we must do to have the best success in understanding the world around us and how it’s changing. We need to rebalance things, offset the seeking impulse that has us continually looking for more information, and spend some time with the information we have.
So consider these simple ideas: 
  • Emphasize conversation, not just connection, and so go deeper than just tagging, tweeting, linking, liking, friending, etc. in your digital life–extend the conversation online, and also try to find time when you can hang out with people, and actually talk
  • Read longer stuff, really read it through. Maybe write down your thoughts about it
  • Read a novel or a book about something interesting and important, and don’t stop over and over again to check email, flip on the tv, etc. Just read
  • When you travel, or visit a museum, try for deeper experiences: so instead of a quick hike to the waterfall near the road, and then a dash off to the next sight, maybe hike the long way around to the waterfall, spend some time, and don't just try to "see everything"

All this is about reaching for quality, not just quantity.

I am not writing this as someone superior to these problems, but as someone fighting them and sometimes making some headway. And I write especially as a futurist who knows some of the pitfalls in the digital world that can get in the way of true, deeper understanding, and we need it.
Image: CarbonNYC, via Flickr, CC attribution license
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{ 4 comments… add one }
  • cindy frewen wuellner January 11, 2011, 5:20 pm

    John, excellent post. am blushing at my urges to search topics. its animal behavior? now I know! your 'fixes' are right on. I also have found that writing about issues makes me think more deeply, connect diverse findings, synthesize and analyze. Perhaps too deep for blog posts, but its good for my brain and thinking habits. well said, thanks for the post. cindy @urbanverse

  • John Mahaffie January 11, 2011, 5:25 pm

    I very much agree, I write to learn, and I think many many writers do. Things so often finally come together when you write. I think too that if you read (and care) you should write, or diagram, or draw, or go see, or something: bring the new thinking alive in some way, take ownership of it, add to it. Gain from it.

  • Peter Andreasson January 11, 2011, 9:59 pm

    Very interesting, John! The amount of information is more or less unlimited today. Which I think basically is a good thing. We all have access to facts, information, research… Look for instance how the relations between patients and doctors rapidly is changing. The "informed patient" is now a reality. But this access is at the same time also extremely stressful; There are always more facts to find. And we are not always competent enough to evaluate the information that is available.
    Happe new year!  /Peter 

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