Lost in Electronica

By Will, George F. | Newsweek, August 30, 2010 | Go to article overview

Lost in Electronica


Will, George F., Newsweek


Byline: George F. Will

The costs of 'the chaos of constant connection.'

Can trout be bored? Can dolphins or apes? Are they neurologically complex enough to experience boredom? What might boredom mean to such creatures? Humanity can boast that it is capable of boredom, but there may now be an unhealthy scarcity of that particular brain pain.

Human beings evolved over dangerous eons. Brains formed in response to constant hazards may react with boredom when exposed to the safety of modern life. Perhaps flight from boredom prompts people today to take refuge in constant stimulation by visual and audio entertainments.

Adam J. Cox is a clinical psychologist worried about the effect of today's cornucopia of electronic stimuli on the cognition of young boys. Writing in The New Atlantis, he says human beings evolved in a world of nutritional scarcity and have responded to the sudden abundance of salt, sugar, and fat by creating an epidemic of obesity. And, he says, the mind, too, now craves junk nourishment:

"Fifty years ago, the onset of boredom might have followed a two-hour stretch of nothing to do. In contrast, boys today can feel bored after thirty seconds with nothing specific to do."

The ubiquitous barrage of battery-powered stimuli delivered by phones, computers, and games makes "the chaos of constant connection" an addictive electronic narcotic. As continuous stimulation becomes the new normal, "gaps between moments of heightened stimulation" are disappearing; amusement "has squeezed the boredom out of life." For the hyperstimulated, "the synaptic mindscape of daily life" becomes all peaks and no valleys.

But valleys can be good for us. Cox believes that a more common occurrence of boredom in the young would be welcome evidence of "the presence of available resources for thought, reflection, and civil behavior." Cox notes that "being civil is rarely fun--it requires patience, forethought, and some willingness to tolerate tedium." So for the overstimulated, "civility feels like submission."

Cox worries about the deficits in the communication abilities of young males for whom a "womb of all-encompassing stimulation" induces "a pleasant trance from which they do not care to be awakened." Hence, perhaps, the "failure to launch" of many young males who, "preoccupied with self-amusement," struggle to make the transition from adolescence to adulthood. …

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