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Information is like snacks, money, and drugs to the brain (berkeley.edu)
478 points by EndXA 24 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 125 comments

I consider my information addiction as one of the top 2 personal problems that are holding me back in my life.

The only thing that works for me every once in a while is going cold turkey and blocking off as many websites as I can in my hosts file.

I'm surprised there isn't a serious accessible product that helps people manage this addiction, because unlike drugs you can't realistically not use the internet ever again and nowadays it's SO easy to go down the rabbit hole even from innocent and serious sites.

Every once in a while I humor myself with a building such a product, but I really don't know what features would work. Any suggestions?

In my experience the issue isn't so much cutting off the supply but what to do to fill the time. It's not as easy as taking up a new hobby, for me at least. I think information addiction is really tricky because it's compromising a key part of what humans are, information processors. We are always processing some kind of information, all the time.

I can go straight from video gaming to reading a book, but my mind takes a few minutes to adjust, and then once I'm synced up I'll tend to get restless after 15-20 minutes and look for something else to do. If I don't have anything else planned I just go back to gaming. It's pretty tough to escape this loop.

I was the same before. I could get myself to sit down with a book and read, and wanted to, very much actually, but could only stomach it for 15-20 minutes. Then I was looking for the next dopamine fix. And not every day. It was a bit boring, really, compared to all the things I "learned" from just skimming hacker news.

It took a long time, but now I can easily read for an hour. My normal routine now is to wake up an hour before I have to and read for an hour or so, and then again in the evening read for an hour or so. Reading a book in the morning is really a great way to start the day, I find. I still prefer ending the day falling asleep to the office or something like that.

One of the things that has really worked for me, other than training the practical side of reading for prolonged amounts of time with focus, is to get used to preferring long pieces instead of the quick fixes that is mostly what's online. Before I wanted the quick reads, they felt like I achieved things. Now I want the long pieces, the books, the journalistic marvels that took years to produce and an hour or more to really go through properly. It took time to get here, getting rid of the fear of missing out - which I'm still working on - and understanding that all sorts of things happen in the "now", but almost anything of importance and substance is best "consumed" at a distance - maybe a week or more after it happens. That's especially true for news, except for the odd once that you want to know about right now, but I feel like when that happens, word will get to your from other paths, like family, friends and so on contacting you if it's that important. Any news that is not important enough to warrant your attention after it's a week old, is it really worth knowing anyway?

One counterintuitive trick that has worked for me is to fire up my "manager brain" in daily life. When you do most white collar work, especially as a manager, your job consists largely of filtering a huge number of potential inputs/jobs and focusing intently on the highest value/leverage ones. Instead of fighting my increasing tendency to scan for a new dopamine hit, I allow my brain to wander for a moment and then to consider the highest value option, which frequently turns out to be continuing doing what I'm doing so that I gain the advantages and compound interest of depth in an activity and do not incur the cost of context switching. I will say that this takes a little enjoyment away from going truly deep and achieving flow, for example, where you lose your sense of time and become engrossed in the narrative/activity/whatever, but it's a bit of a jiu jitsu move and allows you to fight the world around you less and use it to your advantage a little more. I still think tuning out and removing distractions is valuable, but it's a good complementary practice.

I've found that there's a "hump" where reading a book where I get bored and want to do something else after 15-20 minutes, but if I'm really engrossed and stick that out, I can find myself literally reading all night long, for hours at a time, until I finish the book. (I'm someone who tends to finish books in 1-2 sittings; I never really understood folks like my mom who'll read for 15 minutes a day and nurse a book for months.)

For that matter, programming's like that too. After a 15-20 minute chunk I'll usually feel a strong urge to go check HN (clearly, I'm in one of those now). If I can resist that urge enough, and have long enough blocks of time (challenging with a kid now), I can find myself coding for several hours straight until I finish the change I was working on.

>I'm someone who tends to finish books in 1-2 sittings; I never really understood folks like my mom who'll read for 15 minutes a day and nurse a book for months.)

I hope it isn't pointless self help book. I used to be exactly like that until I realized how pointless they are.

Once you bust through that 15-20mins you are home free as a reader. Take your book, leave your phone, and read outside. That way if you want to abandon your book to find some little dopamine hit to stay your ADD, you'd have to go all the way back inside.

Even just another room or nook works, or the public library, so long as all you do there is read. You'll begin to associate that spot with reading and have an easier time getting into the reading mindset.

I broke out of a long term video game addiction (I think we can call it that now) a few years ago. I still go back to them from once or twice a year and I'm always surprised by how hard the grip of them is even after just a play or two. Not all games grip me hard but some just suck me in and suddenly I'm burning 5-6 hours a night

Have you tried graphic novels? I've found them good for when I get restless.

How did you break video game addiction? Asking for a friend, while he excels technically in his line of work, he has issues socially which he escapes through video games.

Graphic novels are another form of escape.

Have you tried mindfulness? I've found it useful for literally everything, ESPECIALLY when restless.

What does this mean? What do you mean by mindfulness?

Non-religious meditation, I presume.

I've been using the StayFocusd [1] extension in Chrome, which gives you a daily allowance on sites you list.

... but then I found myself using Safari to get around that allowance.

There's also Forest [2], which "gamifies" staying away from websites for a certain time. It's the Chrome extension version of the Forest iOS app [3] to stay away from your phone.

I like to think of StayFocusd as the stick, and Forest as the carrot.

[1] https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/stayfocusd/laankej...

[2] https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/forest-stay-focuse...

[3] https://apps.apple.com/us/app/forest-stay-focused/id86645051...

> but then I found myself using Safari to get around that allowance.

Ha, that resonates with me. I use a chrome extension to block a bunch of stuff at work. Which I soon discovered had an easily accessible toggle switch for turning it off. So I hacked the source to remove it.

Then I discovered it didn't work in private mode until I found a setting to enable that too.

At the moment I have no trivial way of turning it off. Except browsing on my phone!

Thanks for the reminder about forest. I realized that with the widget view on ios + having an apple watch, it is more useful.

I can run some shortcuts and time trackers from widgets, start/stop timers etc and use the phone/watch for a bunch of practical stuff while working, but having the screen blocked from distractions by forest.

Hadn’t worked for me before as I missed those functions.

HabitRPG also exists, for the full gamification effect.

I second this. At one time, I thought that I was improving myself by getting new information but the reality is that I crave new information just because. It hasn't been until lately that I have concluded that information for the sake of information is useless. Reading a book is just entertainment unless you put the new knowledge into action. Reading news articles is only useful if they help you in some way.

Also, putting knowledge into action does not feel as good as getting a quick hit of news. But over the long run reducing the amount of new information and doing something with what you learn makes you happier and more satisfied with your life.

If you haven't figured this out yet, keep this in mind before you get lost in a sea of information without a goal. Think of a junkie always looking for the next hit. Except that it's news not a drug.

There are browser extensions like Leechblock for Firefox, they help. You can make the list of sites to edit impossible to reach during the time they are blocked. I'd like a tool like that but more low level, so they work for all browsers simultaneously and can be even harder to circumvent.

There's also a browser extension that limits the number of tabs you can have open.

Maybe another good one would be to slow you down, e.g. at most one page per minute or so.

But the best remedy is to stand up and walk around for a bit, discuss what's vague about your current task with a colleague for a moment, or try to put some thoughts on actual paper. That's not something you get from a product.

"Attention Hijacking" apps and websites along with FOMO leads to over-consumption of digital information or even digital addiction. It is subtle, micro habit forming that turns into part of daily routine. Overtime, it turns into "learned helplessness."

If you use technology to break the addiction, you risk obsessing over the tech. If you rely on will power to break the addiction, you may face internal conflict. The stress is just as bad as the addiction [1]

In my experience, mindfulness is the best solution: Clear your mind by experiencing the sensations of your environment.

[1] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ironic_process_theory

Meditation helps. When I take even 8 minutes a day to sit quietly and breath (I use the Timeless timer for iPhone), I find I have more willpower to avoid crappy food and trivial time-wasters.

Similarly, making sure you get daily exercise and spend some time in nature if you can. Apparently, according to “The Distracted Mind”, even just looking at pictures of nature can help your brain recharge, allowing you to be more focused.

Practicing mindfulness/mediation and breathing techniques has taught me you can break the cycle of being a slave to whatever your brain is craving at any given moment. Don't knock it until you've tried it for a while...

How would you decide what to block? Wikipedia or Stack Overflow can be extremely useful but you can waste time there as easily as on Facebook, Twitter or Hacker News.

While Stack Overflow is great for solving issues, I still had to block the "Hot Network Questions" suggestions from the sidebar because it was an almost systematic distraction that would inevitably send me down a rabbit-hole of unrelated questions.

Any system designed to solve the attention problem will have to be opinionated, blocking specific websites, or at least parts of it, I guess it's an interesting case study for machine learning.

I did this as well and it definitely helped. For Stack Overflow I've also removed the left sidebar entirely and upped the minimum width of the main content (so code doesn't get cut off nearly as much).

Another helpful one was removing the "next page" links on Reddit (I use the classic version). That way I can check on some things I'm interested in, but not get carried away.

I'm considering doing the same for Hacker News.

Thanks for the idea! That's what always gets me too!

How did you do that?

I used an adblocker to block the element (the ID is #hot-network-questions).

I didn't say that this product will "block" sites (traditionally speaking).

For example, if you need StackOverflow it can replace it's UI with only a search box and results list, preventing you from clicking related links.

When you go on reddit, it could asks you which subreddit you need and why before letting you in, reinforcing the reason you need to visit the site. I think it can be powerful - requiring active input from the user as to what his intentions are. If you need to write "I'm really bored" as a reason you go on Facebook, I think there's a pretty good chance you'll end up closing it.

I believe there are hidden patterns that you might be able to break when the product helps you see and understand these patterns.

That's a nice idea, explain your reasons for visiting any site. Also enter how much time you expect to spend there, and get reminders, I'd say.

Then don't decide what to block based on content. Decide what to block either based upon the users express choice (the tool would empower the user, not dictate a lifestyle to them) or possibly based upon observation of where the user spends the most time.

The main problem I see with the concept is that it has a poor intellectual foundation. I'd like to see a better explanation of why learning is so dangerous.

Obviously "learning" in itself is not dangerous, but the amount of time you spend learning instead of things that actually matter to you.

Feeds. Gotta block feeds out of your life. The never-ending treadmill of new information is what's really problematic, at least for me.

Ironically feeds made me spend way less time on the internet. Instead of jumping around half a dozen different sites and dealing with their ass engagement-focused ux, I just skim their RSS feeds once at the end of the day. ~150-200 new articles a day and I scroll and skim through them in about 20 mins.

Maybe I'll read 2-5 particularly interesting articles in depth, but even from what I'd call great websites a lot of the content is just noise and not worth the time spent to read. That really becomes apparent when you have a pretty barebones, super focused and condensed list.

I just stick to HN. I run out of new things to look at after about 45 minutes on it.

I would have to agree.

Overeating, overfeeding.... They share a lot of similarities.

Stack Overflow finally listened to all my pleas on their yearly survey and now turning off the Hot Network Questions is at least a configurable option!

For Macs, there's SelfControl: https://selfcontrolapp.com

It automates editing the hosts file and flushing DNS caches. It can operate as a whitelist or a blacklist.

windows alternative: https://www.focalfilter.com/

Read books instead. Every time you want to browse the web, pick up a book. After you have read the book, only visit sites that discuss said books. Books can be garbage but at least they have some peer review. You have to understand that the web is designed to get you to click. It's the ultimate pavlovian step. Places like HN and reddit are actually the worst because you see and read mostly bullshit that lacks context nor substance. If you are an expert in something that comes up on HN, expect to become disillusioned for example. And on reddit.. well good luck.

An honest question: do you think it’s the information-seeking behavior that is the problem, or that the information-seeking is a manifestation of a different behavior (e.g., procrastination)?

I find that with a lot of people it’s procrastination. There’s no information block thorough enough to address procrastination; it finds a way. It has to be addressed directly.

Just out of curiosity, what do you mean when you say "holding me back in my life"?

I'd also say that browsing the web, learning new stuff, posting on forums, reading in general, is one of the things I use the most of my spare time on. And of course it takes time away from doing potential "productive" things, or more ambitious hobbies. On the surface, it seems like this has a lot of similarities with "information addiction". So I'm just trying to gauge whether this is a problem for me or not.

I've sort of made a deliberate choice that this is okay, since I spend 7 hours a day doing "productive" work anyway, and I get a lot of enjoyment out of this, and it would adversely affect my mental health to chase more ambitious things in my spare time.

There is https://freedom.to/ , which seems to be remarkably successful at charging people to cut off (all our some of) their internet access...

Was going to post about Freedom. Works pretty well and since sessions can be timed it can be used as a pomodoro timer.

I think the first step is to wake up. Really think about what impact the info addiction has on your life. Bucause if you don't it is very hard to see why you should change bad behavior.

The next step is taking babysteps because big steps most of the time don't work.

So for example start by turning off all notifications.

Then allow yourself to YouTube for only 2 hours a day instead of 3.

The Rubin Report has some interviews with Eckhart Tolle on YouTube right now with a lot of insights. And Peter Peterson is also someone who speaks a lot about these subjects.

I built this awhile ago for that exact purpose.


It hasn't fully solved the issue because sometimes I cheat but it helps.


>because unlike drugs you can't realistically not use the internet ever again and nowadays it's SO easy to go down the rabbit hole even from innocent and serious sites.

I can relate so deeply to this sentiment. Especially lurking on deep web, and other pointless rabit holes.

>Every once in a while I humor myself with a building such a product, but I really don't know what features would work. Any suggestions?

Easy? Blocksite app for Android and there are many for others.

Addiction is a symptom of something else, usually trauma (which I include forgetting fundamental ways to use the mind as an item, eg. how to be still and not suffer from boredom).

For me, there were several issues. Anxiety was my normal state, though I didn't know it because I'd been cultivating my addiction since around age 8 & was largely disconnected from my emotions. They were also seemingly locked up from denial of the trauma stemming from being molested (saying "That traumatized me" aloud to myself led to a flood of emotions all at once). I grew up in a codependent family and culture. I was born into the psychosocial slavery of capitalism and taught I had to have a job and money to survive. This disconnected me from my need for community support, which I was also shamed from seeking. I was bullied by my best friend growing up, as well as most of the adults in my life. All of these things had a lasting impact on my relationships.

What worked for me was healing from all of that. I use RescueTime to keep an eye on my usage, but have no other controls anymore. Early in recovery, someone else monitored my screen time, I used MManager (I think) for locking down my phone and a boot password for the laptop, with my roommates & therapist knowing the passwords. Basically, setting up accountability systems for myself. But that's just what kept me from lapsing, which isn't as big of a deal as addiction specialists told me, because I started using them as learning opportunities to observe how my mind worked in those situations.

Basically, any app that isn't helping build mindfulness, learn about what life needs to thrive, build a supportive community, and identify/heal from trauma is operating from the current mainstream approach to addiction and is only going to have marginal effects. Don't look to current addiction science...I turned my info addiction inward and healed that way.

If you'd like to talk more about what you're going through and would like to add someone to your support network, I'm available for it.

>I'm available for it.

What is your keybase?

Have you considered adding some meaning to your life?

> Solitude Deprivation: A state in which you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from the input from other minds.


There is Cold Turkey Blocker.


The problem is that it's not the panaceo you imagine it to be at first. The crux of the problem is the bad habit loop.

A bit cheeky to marginalize drugs to data, eh? Data won’t cause you to lose 3 days of work.

> I'm surprised there isn't a serious accessible product

But there is! $5 timer on your wireless router.

i just go outdoors and leave my phone at home.

Check out freedom.to

The original study can be found here: https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2019/06/10/1820145116


> Adaptive information seeking is critical for goal-directed behavior. Growing evidence suggests the importance of intrinsic motives such as curiosity or need for novelty, mediated through dopaminergic valuation systems, in driving information-seeking behavior. However, valuing information for its own sake can be highly suboptimal when agents need to evaluate instrumental benefit of information in a forward-looking manner. Here we show that information-seeking behavior in humans is driven by subjective value that is shaped by both instrumental and noninstrumental motives, and that this subjective value of information (SVOI) shares a common neural code with more basic reward value. Specifically, using a task where subjects could purchase information to reduce uncertainty about outcomes of a monetary lottery, we found information purchase decisions could be captured by a computational model of SVOI incorporating utility of anticipation, a form of noninstrumental motive for information seeking, in addition to instrumental benefits. Neurally, trial-by-trial variation in SVOI was correlated with activity in striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Furthermore, cross-categorical decoding revealed that, within these regions, SVOI and expected utility of lotteries were represented using a common code. These findings provide support for the common currency hypothesis and shed insight on neurocognitive mechanisms underlying information-seeking behavior.

Is it just me, or is "money" the odd one out here?

Snacks and drugs both have direct, obvious 'value' to the body - food is about the simplest evolutionary case imaginable, and a host of animals will get drunk given the chance. And it's easy to make a case for 'information' as something any reinforcement learner will value and seek out, since it's essentially a prerequisite for all other learning and decision-making.

Money, though, is exclusively a proxy for some other future benefit, and lots of other examples imply we haven't made it into a strong first-order feedback loop. Money v happiness studies both show weak happiness benefits from money (once you're not in dire need), and find that "how you spend it" strongly mediates the effects. Slot machine design is devoted to the idea of intermittent reinforcement and works very hard to create non-monetary, directly limbic rewards to keep players engaged.

Given all that, "food, drugs, and info" actually sounds like a much more natural grouping to me than "food, drugs, and money". I don't know of any research here, though. Could you take a well-known study like prisoner's dilemma or the ultimatum game and get different results with non-monetary rewards, or prime people by discussing certain things they could do with the money?

One could think of money as a proxy for power and prestige. I think for social animals "Food, Drugs, Status" is a pretty decent list of priorities. Honestly, drugs looks like the odd one out there.

Drugs is the direct medium. You can think of food, info, and status as things that we have evolved to desire, because they usually correlate highly with survival. The mechanism through which we desire them is neurotransmitters in the brain; drugs are chemicals which just happen to mimic the action of those neurotransmitters. And then money is a social abstraction we've created that can be traded for all of food/info/status, so we've learned through association to desire that too.

For a programming analogy, food/info/status are like API functions that all rely on the same kernel syscall, and then drugs hack that syscall without going through the API.

I mean it’s also the only way to actually get food and drugs






Willow bark?

I'm sure the environmental folks would love it if even a small percentage of the human population started doing that on a regular basis instead of relying on agriculture and industry.

Lots of people do have gardens already

So they can have a couple tomatoes and bunches of arugula to last maybe a month or two after their harvest time? Meanwhile 99% of the food they eat still comes from agriculture.

There really is no real alternative to agriculture and food markets, besides the things that are more of a hobby than a serious option.

You're not wrong, but this is how I learned about in-season vegetables. I can keep my garden going year-round, but it took time and learning, so I'm not suggesting it's possible for everyone (especially once you take geography into account). It's hard work!

But even as a relatively staunch environmentalist, I didn't really "get" in-season produce until I tried keeping a garden 365 days a year. Now it sticks, and I have a much better idea when I walk into a grocery store of what veggies are in season. I should know, because they reflect what I'm currently trying (or know I can) grow in my garden for the given month.

Basically, the benefit isn't just that I'm buying less stuff from the grocery store.

If I tallied up all we spend on our garden and divide the amount of produce we get from it by that figure, it would make Whole Foods' prices look ridiculously cheap...

And I pay a premium for eggs from a small farm where chickens are fed well and allowed to wander.

No even whole foods is charging the correct price for goods when one takes into account the environmental impact.

Food as a Service ...

How long could they survive off their garden and own produced food alone? It’s nice people have their own food production in these small ways. But it isn’t enough.

What? None of those are free. You need land to do any of that, or permits, or both.

Canada, the most affluent of countries, operates on a depletion economy which leaves destruction in its wake. Your people are driven by a terrible sense of deficiency. When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money. - Obomsawin

Our brain craves dopamine releases, which signals future reward. This rewarding-ness of food, info, drugs can be converted to a monetary value and measured.

The human "plains of Africa" brain treats money as food. And prior to refrigeration in most of the world food will spoil sooner than later so you're always mindful of getting more food, which is why some people just can't stop getting more money. On some level they irrationally still believe the money they have will soon rot in the equatorial sun.

Food and information are absolute quantities. Money, in contrast, is a measure of power relative to other humans.

Money provides safety and freedom and is crucial for happiness on low to medium-income levels. However, with more money neither safety nor freedom doesn't increase significantly (sometimes it's even the opposite) hence no increase in happiness.

For all but the last instant of our cultural evolution, humans have been information starved. In one generation we have become a culture that has instant access to unbounded quantities‡.

In the same way, over the last century or so, we became a species with ample access to calories‡. With foods containing the evolutionary markers of high calorific content (i.e. sugars, carbs and fats) being the cheapest.

It doesn't surprise me in the slightest that we are similarly primed to overindulge in both. Nor that we lack the innate intuition to determine quality. I very much expect the nascent 'tech detox' movement to develop into a broader healthy thinking movement.


‡ #NotAllHumans, obviously.

> For all but the last instant of our cultural evolution, humans have been information starved. In one generation we have become a culture that has instant access to unbounded quantities.

"... The story is that in the region of Naucratis in Egypt there dwelt one of the old gods of the country, the god to whom the bird called Ibis is sacred, his own name being Theuth. He it was that invented number and calculation, geometry and astronomy, not to speak of draughts and dice, and above all writing. Now the king of the whole country at that time was Thamus, who dwelt in the great city of Upper Egypt which the Greeks call Egyptian Thebes, while Thamus they call Ammon. To him came Theuth, and revealed his arts, saying that they ought to be passed on to the Egyptians in general. Thamus asked what was the use of them all, and when Theuth explained, he condemned what he thought the bad points and praised what he thought the good. On each art, we are told, Thamus had plenty of views both for and against; it would take too long to give them in detail. But when it came to writing Theuth said, 'Here, O king, is a branch of learning that will make the people of Egypt wiser and improve their memories; my discovery provides a recipe for memory and wisdom.' But the king answered and said, 'O man full of arts, to one it is given to create the things of art, and to another to judge what measure of harm and of profit they have for those that shall employ them. And so it is that you, by reasons of your tender regard for the writing that is your offspring, have declared the very opposite of its true effect. If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.'"

Plato, "Phaedrus" (c. 360 BCE)

> humans have been information starved

I'm not sure starved is the right metaphor.

When saying we were "information starved" it implies we actually needed more information, like food, when in fact the reason the brain pays so much attention to new stuff is probably because the signal to noise ratio was much higher for millions of years than it is these days.

> When saying we were "information starved" it implies we actually needed more information, like food

We arguably did need more, like the locations to find food, when to plant food, how to deal with drought or pests, how to avoid and defend from predators, etc. Information is the key to all of our needs.

See all the examples of explorers dying in places with ample food because they didn't know how to access it. Scott Alexander recently reviewed a book covering this:


Information was critical for survival, so it's no surprise we seek it out.

Yes, but your link makes a good case that our cognitive abilities aren't perfect at this, nor did they necessarily evolve to do this. After all, plenty of other animals meet their needs perfectly fine without our large brains.

Some have thus argued that our cognitive abilities actually evolved to deal with understanding the minds of other humans, to predict defectors and establish complex social systems that encourage cooperation and enhance collective survival. Our ability to cooperate provides a huge adaptive advantage, and so our innate biases supposedly make more sense in this context.

This makes social media doubly dangerous, since not only is information valuable, but information about what other people are talking about, thinking, etc. is even more important to us.

Hmm good point.

Which makes me think: will we ever have enough?

also compounding this abundance are the ways social media/entertainment (games) basically takes the model of gambling and juices it to insane levels

“diseases of abundance”

For those who want more snacks and drugs, here's the preprint of the actual article: https://www.biorxiv.org/content/early/2018/05/17/324665.full...

Doesn't look like it differs much from the published version: https://www.gwern.net/docs/rl/2019-kobayashi.pdf (as usual...)

tl;dr: I think the study's idea of 'baseline' behavior relies on a payout-maximizing model we know is incorrect.

Thanks, I'm well past the point of believing PR office summaries of studies on these topics. And sure enough, it looks to me like this is being oversold and also has some concerning gaps. Anyone want to help me understand that?

Press release: “To the brain, information is its own reward, above and beyond whether it’s useful”

Article: We observed that subjects’ information acquisition behavior was indeed largely driven by instrumental benefit... While we found no evidence for simplistic constant utility bonus, the utility of anticipation improved behavioral modeling.

Which is to say, subjects specifically did not place an inherent value on information independent of its utility. Rather, they adjusted its value based on its utility in a way which did not perfectly maximize payout.

More broadly and importantly, I think this is a worthwhile study, but I'm worried it's propagating a known behavior up through extra layers and calling it a new result. It's well established that people playing games of chance don't behave as perfect payout-maximizers, and specifically that they appear to be loss-averse and ambiguity-averse (e.g. Ellsberg's paradox). They also appear to place nonlinear value on the utility of money, changing their choices when all game outcomes are scaled with the same expected utility (Allais paradox). Given all of that, we can say that a player's desired outcome in such a game is not simply maximizing expected payout. As such, "perfectly rational" behavior at the information-buying step is not the decision which maximizes payout, but the one which maximizes their performance under their chosen utility function.

But the study works from the assumption that "Under standard economic accounts, agents accept the lottery if its EU is higher than the utility of status quo u(0), and reject otherwise (Fig. 2a). Furthermore, they purchase the information if its cost is lower than VOI and forgo if higher". A host of studies show that this is not how people actually play lotteries. As a result, the study concludes that anticipation utility is acting at the information-buying step, while ignoring the possibility of strictly-rational purchasing under an alternate utility function.

This could have been easily tested with a control in which players were asked to play the variable-outcome lotteries with perfect information, to establish baseline play against which to compare information-buying behavior. I'm still interested in the game results and the MRI data, but the press release tells us this result "could only be explained by a model that captured both economic and psychological motives". I'm not ready to accept that when the control is purely theoretical and based on a model we already know doesn't work.

“I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”

- Sherlock Holmes

Arthur Conan Doyle was no neuroscientist. Useless facts don't elbow out the useful ones, except perhaps in the time taken to acquire them.

Yes, it has since been “disproven”. But not all the way. I bet that spending all your time memorizing useless trivia will take away resources — at least in terms of time and opportunity — from, say, learning a language or a scientific discipline. Opportunity cost is a thing! And I think that’s true on the level of memory also.

I, for one, don't care about my phone. I routinely forget where I put it. I use it a total of ~15 minutes a day.

My desktop computer, on the other hand, I check hacker news every 5 minutes. Even if I know there's nothing of interest or I've already read all the comments about things I care about, I check just in case.

this site has been useful for me to stop checking HN regularly. It keeps track of all Top-X threads per day. So I can check it on the weekend or whenever and see if I missed anything important. http://hckrnews.com

infinite scroll!

a. no thanks!

b. heroin for the information addict

Wondering if you actually track or can see how long you use your phone? Even when I barely use my phone. Just because of doing a web search, maps, a bit of data tracking, analytics for phone usage always adds ups to close to 30 min.

same! i more or less only touch my phone- vastly inferior ux- when i have to or if im actually mobile

Interesting to see this today. Yesterday I was listening to Duncan Trussel on Joe Rogan’s podcast and he was making this exact point. I imagine the information ‘food pyramid’ will evole over time as well.

Is everyone just going to ignore that the "information" they're talking about is information about the odds during gambling for money?

That obviously makes this headline untrue. Gambling for money and learning the rules of gambling is not general information. This is not applicable to click-bait.

Have you ever noticed how some people crave the resolution of simple lack of relevant information?

You can say “Hey, I was goin to tell you... ah nevermind” and they will pester you, “no, tell me!”

I have also found there is also a difference between male and female psychology. Women are much more interested to know the details of something emotionally salient that you’ve indicated you care about. Men let it go and seem to focus more intently on abstract things that may have wide applicability.

Ok this fMRI study is showing something that is not quite unexpected. rewarding behaviour is likely to be mediated by reward pathways, and the authors are careful not to address digital information overload/addiction directly because they did not study that. This finding is expected and thus not very informative (pun intented) . Also the title shouldn't just say "information", but curiosity instead. The participants weren't randomly fed information mindlessly, but were actively seeking actionable information from a stream. That's not quite like how modern media does it - in fact the 99% of digital media consumption is non-goal driven. This may be applicable however to goal-directed information seeking, like search results, dating sites, financial news feeds.

An aside: we had a pretty interesting discussion about how to remedy scatter brain and information overload (back in Dec 2014): https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=8710006

Great comments in that thread.

In terms of neural networks that doesn't seem so strange.

Neural networks can "overfit" and behave like a hash table instead of generalizing.

One method of "regularization" is putting in a score that represents network complexity, information content, etc. and then adding it against the reward function.

So, what does that mean in terms of a user manual for human brains?

We should discount low information dense sources ? or sources that are a long way off in graph terms?

This is obviously all extremely speculative, but it's such an interesting topic I can't really keep myself from posting anyway.

I've had this idea for the better part of my life, that I try to avoid read especially large canonical works deeply, and with few exceptions prefer to read several sources shallowly to reading a few deeply. The exceptions are when I try to learn something entirely new, like a new mathematical topic, or when I encounter something that is both completely at odds with my current mental model, and not obviously false.

From a learning perspective, it could be seen as to adding some kind of noise to input data, and to also have a kind of indirect - but rather strong - validation set through the knowledge contained in the canonical works, as understood by others.

Could this prevent some kinds of over fitting? I honestly don't know, but maybe it could?

It's obviously anecdotal, and extremely so, but it actually seems to be the case that my generalization abilities, my capacity to apply knowledge across disciplines, and to identify behavior on certain scale has had a rather unusual trajectory.

Sometimes it almost appears as if I know things I don't remember ever having learned, or even though about. As if the "data points" have become so numerous that the brain somehow becomess able to generalize over things that one would (superficially) believe to be facts.

Before I realized what was happening, I have had several people, some within highly skilled fields, come to believe I worked in their field after conversing with them for a while. When they realize I'm not, many became confused, and some to the point of being unable to continue the conversation.

Nowadays I generally manage to avoid those situations, but it really was - and is - the strangest thing when it happens.

Well, sugary drinks/other crap, healthy food and food in general, has a label with their nutritional facts. Maybe we will benefit from a a similar label next to every piece of info we are going to consume. “This newspaper is high in doubtful info and low in facts” probably a third party should label all the content

From an information theory viewpoint, information means something in particular. For instance a black hole event horizon has the highest area information density in the universe but it like a frame of television static.

In particular, once you are exposed to information it ceases to be information anymore.

I think the behavior of "scanning" where you reload the front page of Hacker News or Google News or look at the newspaper over and over again hoping to get something new is particularly pernicious. You are exposing your brain to "information" in once sense but not real information in the sense of learning.

Contrast a compulsive reading habit, where you are getting new information that you need to incorporate into long term memory as opposed to a compulsive video game habit for something like League of Legends or Advance Wars where you are recombining the same elements over and over again. I found that switching from the first to the second helped me feel less anxious, but I still read plenty about topics like 1970-era mainframe transaction processing or whatever I am into.

Reminds me of the hippocampus size study from 2006 for people who do repetitive work (bus driving) and people who have to analyze roads for best paths for a living (taxi drivers) in London https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17024677

And from a personal anecdote, learning something new doesn't always feel like a drug or good food. News has always something new and it doesn't feel that great to consume. Learning something new that is applicable feels empowering, sometimes almost to the point of excitement and joy.

Isn't it the over way around ? Snacks, money, and drugs is like information to the brain ? ;) Perhaps everthing is just info, it is just that we are used to old patterns of seeing things...

TL;DR clickbait is addictive.

“And just as our brains like empty calories from junk food, they can overvalue information that makes us feel good but may not be useful—what some may call idle curiosity.”

THAT is the point of the article. Crap information is addictive.

I knew there was some sort of angle to this.

Are you saying you think their angle was to reach a conclusion that sugary information is addictive? It sounded like that was the starting point. What's the issue?

They didn't specify what kind of information in the header. So you could either assume ALL information is like junkfood and drugs, or you could assume people are filling up on information and becoming more intelligent (which I assume NO ONE assumed) or make any number of assumptions.

Case in point: the headline is too ambiguous.

This can easily be channeled into a positive. If you are consuming information that has value I don't see the problem. I binge a little on engineering videos each week that add to my personal and professional life. I love absorbing new information. It is a far cry from going down youtube holes of reality tv highlights, celebrity news, or other modes of cultural decay.

Honestly, sometimes I worry that watching engineering videos online is worse than the vacuous shit that normal people watch.

I go through phases, things like aircraft, off grid living, hydropower, welding, CNC, machining, woodworking, electronics, gardening, farming, hydroponics.

Few of those are relevant to my day job or even my current living arrangements. But when I get really interested in a subject I'll devour every shred of information I can find on it.

The problem is, I doubt I'd get distracted in the middle of the working day thinking about Love Island, not so for the more "useful" things I've read and watched.

I agree that a lot of these things are terrible as sources of long-term distraction - a vacuous TV show might take my attention while I watch it and a bit after, but the uses of a 3D printer can set me up to nerd-snipe myself for weeks. And even in the short-term, I think they tend to bypass some of my mental 'defenses'; they're pseudo-useful so it doesn't feel like wasted time, and they're below the addictiveness level that triggers my allergy to e.g. freemium games. Addictive games and TV feel like talking to a scam caller, while almost-useful stuff feels like a really good low-pressure salesman.

That said, some of that distraction does actually pay off. (Especially if I can fight the instinct to learn about stuff that needs rarified tools or large-scale projects; I'm not going to build my own airplane no matter how cool it would be.) Being able to graft a tree, tie a fishing lure, or cut a hole with questionable tools are at least usable skills, so if I can to low-tech or relatively commonplace stuff, it's a decent way to channel the urge for distraction into some kind of utility.

I was always interested in electrical engineering and after a couple years of watching stuff on youtube and trying it out myself, all from a leisure time perspective, it turned out I became qualified enough to do it professionally. I've been doing firmware forever and now I design the gadgets too. It has been very valuable.

What EE channels do you like?

Eevblog is the gold standard for us

Maybe it's just because he's Scottish but I find Big Clive much easier to watch. The only sad thing is he doesnt do a larger variety of things.


I'm of the opinion that this sort of thing is not any different than reality TV highlights or celebrity news. It's all mostly useless information that feels good going in but doesn't add much value int he end.

Neil Postman touches on this in 'Amusing Ourselves to Death' - here's a nice quote that gets at how I feel. Although he's talking about the telegraph and photography, I think it applies well to the internet and video.

"In a peculiar way, the photograph was the perfect complement to the flood of telegraphic news from nowhere that threatened to submerge readers in a sea of facts from unknown places about strangers with unknown faces. For the photograph gave a concrete reality to the strange-sounding datelines, and attached faces to the unknown names. Thus it provided the illusion, at least, that "the news" had a connection to something within one's sensory experience. It created an apparent context for the "news of the day." And the "news of the day" created a context for the photograph. But the sense of context created by the partnership of photograph and headline was, of course, entirely illusory. You may get a better sense of what I mean here if you imagine a stranger's informing you that the illyx is a subspecies of vero miform plant with articulated leaves that flowers biannually on the island of Aldononjes. And if you wonder aloud, "Yes, but what has that to do with anything?" imagine that your informant replies, "But here is a photograph I want you to see," and hands you a picture labeled Illyx on Aldononjes. "Ah, yes," you might murmur, "now I see." It is true enough that the photograph provides a context for the sentence you have been given, and that the sentence provides a context of sorts for the photograph, and you may even believe for a day or so that you have learned something. But if the event is entirely self-contained, devoid of any relationship to your past knowledge or future plans, if that is the beginning and end of your encounter with the stranger, then the appearance of context provided by the conjunction of sentence and image is illusory, and so is the impression of meaning attached to it. You will, in fact, have "learned" nothing (except perhaps to avoid strangers with photographs), and the illyx will fade from your mental landscape as though it had never been. At best you are left with an amusing bit of trivia, good for trading in cocktail party chatter or solving acrossword puzzle, but nothing more."


Honest question.

Maybe I'm old, or maybe I'm not a visual or aural learner, but I don't get much out of watching Youtube videos. Do you find them a better learning tool than reading a well produced document or tutorial?

For many in younger generations (including myself), watching a youtube video - even a dry educational one - scratches an "I'm being entertained" itch, perhaps born of being raised watching television. Something deeply rooted adores fast-paced audiovisual stimuli. Reading a well written document does not have the same effect. It's troubling.

I prefer to read to learn, overall, but I really like that a video of someone doing the thing I want to learn will communicate their assumptions and less tangible knowledge via their actions.

They can be but I'd agree documents are usually better for in depth knowledge. Seeing a demonstration really helps me get started.

The distractions smart phones are causing in our population is serious and scary. I like information everyone as much as the next person, but whenever I am checking my phone I try to remind myself of Robert Green's concept of "alive time" vs "dead-time"

>"He told me, Ryan while people wait for the right moment, there are two types of time: Dead time—where they are passive and biding and Alive time—where they are learning and acting and leveraging every second towards their intended future. Which will this be for you?"[1]

Social media is mostly dead time (I would say all dead time, but someone will probably give me shit about it), as is reading the short form versions of the news, TMZ, skimming an article instead of reading the whole thing, etc.

If you spend 30 minutes a day studying a new language you can achieve amazing results in less than a year. Instead of wasting time on facebook, bring a kindle and read about something interesting. Compound growth is very real, and more people should take advantage of it.

>"Compound growth gets discussed as a financial concept, but it works in careers as well, and it is magic. A small productivity gain, compounded over 50 years, is worth a lot. So it’s worth figuring out how to optimize productivity. If you get 10% more done and 1% better every day compared to someone else, the compounded difference is massive. " [2]

>"You observe that most great scientists have tremendous drive. I worked for ten years with John Tukey at Bell Labs. He had tremendous drive. One day about three or four years after I joined, I discovered that John Tukey was slightly younger than I was. John was a genius and I clearly was not. Well I went storming into Bode’s office and said, How can anybody my age know as much as John Tukey does? He leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, grinned slightly, and said, You would be surprised Hamming, how much you would know if you worked as hard as he did that many years. I simply slunk out of the office!

What Bode was saying was this: Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest. Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person who works 10% more than the other, the latter will more than twice outproduce the former. The more you know, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more the opportunity - it is very much like compound interest. I don’t want to give you a rate, but it is a very high rate. Given two people with exactly the same ability, the one person who manages day in and day out to get in one more hour of thinking will be tremendously more productive over a lifetime. I took Bode’s remark to heart; I spent a good deal more of my time for some years trying to work a bit harder and I found, in fact, I could get more work done."[3]

End of rant.

[1] https://thoughtcatalog.com/ryan-holiday/2014/09/alive-time-v...

[2] https://blog.samaltman.com/productivity

[3] https://www.gwern.net/Spaced-repetition

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