The Attention System- Why We love A Good Mystery and the appeal of Twitter

I wrote yesterday about Ambient Intimacy, and then I spent part of the evening listening to some MIT Open Courseware lectures on psychology- great stuff.

One of the things Prof. Jeremy Wolfe talks about is how babies look at novel things in their environment, then get bored. Then when you give them something new, novel or unusual to look at, they stare at these objects for a long period of time, trying to suss things out. Once babies “solve” the mystery, they go back to looking at other things, waiting for the next novel experience to come along.

And in general, all of our brains are wired from the beginning to attend to new and novel stimuli. It’s certainly a survival skill- you have to be able to notice all the new stuff in your environment, to figure out whether it’s friend or foe, worth your attention, or can go into the background and ignored.

And then there’s the persistent nagging mysteries of life- if you don’t have closure on something, if you haven’t solved the mystery, your brain continues to noodle over these problems for ages. Just like the starting babies, we look and look and mull things over until we can compartmentalize the information- file it away literally or figuratively, and move on. For example, if you are in an email exchange with someone, when do you cut it off? Who gets the last word?

And just think how many people become obsessed with being dumped by a boyfriend or girlfriend. Until we have been able to rationalize that they were a jerk, or stupid, or elsewise come to a conclusion that they really are no longer worth our time or cranium space, the thoughts of what we did wrong or what happened plague us worse than the suspense and frustration generated after reading a 300 page mystery novel only to find the last three pages missing.

So I’ve come to the theory that ambient intimacy is really all about solving the mystery. “What will my friends say next?” keeps us going back to twitter time and again. The fact that we hardly “know” many of the people we meet in new media keeps us intrigued as their backstory slips out, piece by piece, over a very long length of time. Our brains are hooked on the mystery and the constant novel information provided.

Once we have an explanation, or understand something, we can put the thing away and forget it. As long as there’s new and novel content coming all the time, we’re in a constant state of anticipation. This is why video games are addicting- we have gradually harder and harder levels, with new challenges all the time. great teachers stop a lecture and leave kids wanting more the next time- leave a question hanging and the answer to come at the beginning of the next class….. We wait impatiently for the next season of our favorite programs to see what happens next… we are a species built for page turners, problem solving and novelty. It’s what feeds our brain its favorite food. It explains the addictive nature of reality TV show competitions, contests, and the like.

Twitter is brain food in a way- can we make other things act as brain food as well? Can you pose problems to be solved by your peers- get them hooked on your content, waiting for your next words and posts? I know this is why “If Not Now, When?” is such a good video podcast- it keeps you in suspense how everyone will answer those weighty questions in life.

What do you think? Is it all about novelty at first, in capturing our attention, but the mysteries keep us glued to the content long term?

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