Mind Matters

Reading & Thinking, Dopamine Loops, & Attention Ecologies

Hey Folks,

Lots of stuff today, so settle in (or use this bulleted outline to pick & choose what you’ll read and what you’ll skip, because that’s what we all do nowadays).

  • The Evolution of Reading is the Evolution of Thinking…? How reading shapes our sense of interiority, from its inception as an oral & social practice, through its silent & solitary phase, to today’s frenzied, digital form.

  • Dopamine’s Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, Or: The Ease of Vice & the Difficulty of Virtue. Research from a French neuroscientist substantiates what Romanian philosopher E.M. Cioran wrote in the 70’s: it’s easy to be bad, but hard to be good.

  • Why Attention is not an Economy, but an Ecology. We figured this out back around 1850, but with the rise of ‘attention economy’ in today’s discourse, it’s important to revisit why thinking about attention as economic is misleading.

  • Brief Book Review: Yves Citton’s The Ecology of Attention, where most of these ideas began.

  • New (Short) Essay: On Some Terrors of Nothingness

Unwind & enjoy!

The Evolution of Reading is the Evolution of Thinking…?

I’m not sure if I’m late to this party, but apparently reading only became reading as we know it - silent, to ourselves - around (arguably) the 17th century. Traditionally, and for most of the history of the written word, reading was an oral, even social exercise, writes Princeton medievalist D. Vance Smith:

“The default assumption in the classic period, if you were reading around other people, you’d read aloud and share it…For us, the default is we’ll read silently and keep it to ourselves.”

The evolution of reading from social to silent brought along what Nicholas Carr calls a ‘strange anomaly’ in our psychological history, a heightened sense of interiority:

“Reading a book was a meditative act, but it didn’t involve a clearing of the mind. It involved a filling, or replenishing, of the mind. Readers disengaged their attention from the outward flow of passing stimuli in order to engage it more deeply with an inward flow of words, ideas, and emotions. That was — and is — the essence of the unique mental process of deep reading. It was the technology of the book that made this ‘strange anomaly’ in our psychological history possible.”

Carr feels we’ve arrived at yet another revolution in our psychological history, again incited by new reading habits:

“We seem to have arrived…at an important juncture in our intellectual and cultural history, a moment of transition between two very different modes of thinking. What we’re trading away in return for the riches of the Net — and only a curmudgeon would refuse to see the riches — is what Karp calls ‘our old linear thought process.’ Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts…”

Hard not to think of Twitter here. But with all we know regarding neuroplasticity, we know that these new reading habits are rewiring our brains, reconfiguring perception, and reprogramming perception:

“…just as neurons that fire together wire together, neurons that don’t fire together don’t wire together. As the time we spend scanning Web pages crowds out the time we spend reading books, as the time we spend exchanging bite-sized text messages crowds out the time we spend composing sentences and paragraphs, as the time we spend hopping across links crowds out the time we devote to quiet reflection and contemplation, the circuits that support those old intellectual functions and pursuits weaken and begin to break apart.

All this to say, the history of how we read and the history of human psychology appear to share similar inflection points. How we read both reflects and conditions the ways we think, and we’re amidst an inflection point that will decide the new trajectory of both reading, and our minds.

Dopamine’s Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, Or: The Ease of Vice & the Difficulty of Virtue

French neuroscientist Jean-Philippe Lachaux’s findings demonstrate what I’m calling dopamine’s ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’.

The levels of dopamine in the brain’s nucleus accumbens (NAc, the red dot in image below) region were found to affect whether our behavior orients itself to short-term or long-term thinking.

The NAc operates at the nexus of the prefrontal cortex (complex cognitive behavior), the amygdala (emotions and survival instinct), and the hippocampus (memory and emotional responses). With lower levels of dopamine in the NAc, the prefrontal cortex captains behavior and we act with long-term, ‘rational’ considerations in mind. When dopamine levels surge beyond a certain threshold, control of the NAc is overtaken by the amygdala and hippocampus, promoting behavior and attention for short-term rewards.

Imagine a spike in dopamine occurs, behavior then orients towards short-term rewards, which are generally dopamine-seeking behaviors, which will increase the dopamine levels, and further orient behavior towards short-term behaviors, in an infinite cycle of dopamine fortification and negligence of long-term mentality.

And so on. The point is that dopamine-seeking behavior, like eating sugars, or reveling in social media notifications, is a feedback loop that encourages itself.

I don’t know if serotonin works in a similar fashion, but I don’t think so. So the frustrating conclusion is that vices support their own proliferation, while virtues don’t. “Why?” would be a fair question to ask whoever is responsible for all this.

Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran spoke to this in a bizarre, fascinating book, The Trouble with Being Born:

“It is easier to get on with vices than with virtues. The vices, accommodating by nature, help each other, are full of mutual indulgence, whereas the jealous virtues combat and annihilate each other, showing in everything their incompatibility and their intolerance.”

The only positive spin I can imagine is a gesture towards what philosopher Owen Flanagan calls “Platonic Hedonism”:

“My own way of dealing with this problem is to be and live as a platonic hedonist, to try to maximize pleasures at the places where what is true and beautiful and good intersect.”

I wonder if there’s some kind of ecological reconstruction possible that would orient our dopamine systems to encourage behavior favoring long-term well-being? Is there some way to re-create our biological feedback loops (via, I don’t know, architecture, media interfaces, political structures, economic incentives, contemplative practices, diets, and so on…basically entire ecologies of being) so that the virtues, rather than vices, are “full of mutual indulgence”, and perpetuate each other?

Why Attention is not an Economy, but an Ecology

An economic conception of attention treats it as a resource that each individual owns. My attention is mine to wield, I am the rational subject who decides where my attention goes. It is a matter of individual will & discipline.

An ecological perspective finds such a view superficial. An ecological view of attention takes as fundamental the complex relational milieu from which it arises. It does not view the individual as separate from their environment. Changing our environment does more to reconfigure attention than concentrated bursts of will power. As Jason Read writes in The New Inquiry:

“To posit an ecology of attention is to see it as situated within its constitutive conditions. This allows it to escape the individualistic bias built into the economic metaphor that treats attention as a fixed resource to be saved or spent however one chooses.”

If this sounds unfamiliar, it’s not because this is new information. Yves Citton traces this ecological understanding of attention all the way back to 1850, where a wave of experimental psychology sufficiently established this conception as superior to the prior, economic one. He writes:

“After 1850, however, attention appeared less as the faculty of a mind that was active and master of itself, than as a bodily reaction liable to be seized by capturing apparatuses…So, it is in this period that we move from an economic model (of investment) to an ecological model (of relation to the milieu).”

With all the hullabaloo about an ‘attention economy’ these days, and attentions rise to a new form of capital, it’s important to re-inject these ideas into the discourse.

Why? Because the economic model of attention renders it an entirely individual problem, doing nothing to implicate the larger systemic dynamics that condition it. An ecological view of attention necessitates not only individual effort, but collective reform. To cultivate any kind of reformed, improved attention requires political, social, and economic changes. These are the environments implicated in an ecology of attention that transcend the individual.

So when we talk about Universal Basic Income, for example, we rarely consider how it might restructure attention. What might we be liberated to ‘attend to’, if able to spend far less time working with the sole purpose of securing food, shelter, and basic safety nets? A dystopian view might argue just more Netflix & doughnuts (think dopamine’s self-fulfilling tendencies), and whether or not this might occur (I don’t think it would on any worrisome scale, and previous trials support this), I fail to see how it’s worse than working in a shitty office doing something you don’t enjoy for 8 hours per day.

Other attention-minded policies include a tax on ‘activities of attention attraction’ in public spaces (billboards that litter our visual field), which Citton includes:

Not sure how that’d go over, but this kind of thinking is what an ecological approach to attention, rather than economic, inspires.

Brief Book Review: The Ecology of Attention

Today’s whole newsletter is a kind of abstracted review of Yves Citton’s book, The Ecology of Attention. It might be because I’m new to the realm of media theorists, but I devoured this thing.

Also, I’m doing a new thing where I keep a Twitter thread to compile notes & quotes from books I’m reading, each book getting its own thread. If you want a better idea of the book, feel free to skim the thread, which has way more quotes and bits than I’ll provide here:

A few of the books guiding questions:

  • "what can we do collectively about our individual attention, and how can we contribute individually to a redistribution of our collective attention?"

  • "Our collective attention is currently being abuse by the inertia of obsolete economic models...Can we hope to see digital cultures overcome the impasses of an attention capitalism subjected to the financial logic of ratings?"

Citton is an academic, and he writes like one. So while his writing can be dry and wordy, he gathers a stew of references, and introduced me to a whole realm of thinkers I’d never heard of before. A few quotes in the book from these folks:

Art critic & essayist Jonathan Crary:

"Capitalist modernity has generated a constant re-creation of the conditions of sensory experience, in what could be called a revolutionizing of the means of perception."

And Felix Guattari, who said mass-media power "crushes contemporary subjectivity", and looks forward to a 'post-media era':

"...consisting of a collective individual reappropriation and an interactive usage of information, communication, intelligence, art and culture machines."

Citton writes that mass media is a 'deterritorialized factory' where our tastes and lives fall into convergent lines, ushered together by algorithms like Google’s Page Rank, that pushes our attention towards things other people are paying attention to.

Rather than merely transmitting information or representing reality, he writes that mass media forms a system “that actively reconditions the reality that it is supposed faithfully to represent."

And so on.

If you’re interested, I found Citton on the Post-Traditional Buddhism podcast. This was a particularly cool angle on him, because despite his research and interest into subjectivity, he has no spiel on meditation, no bit on contemplative practice, and yet his ideas so clearly drift in that direction, so the two had a fantastically cross-fertilizing conversation, available here.

Book Available on Amazon

MusingMind Book Review Page

I’m also creating a page on the MusingMind website where I’ll gather all the book reviews going out in the newsletter. I haven’t added many books yet, but if you’d like to check out past reviews, or peruse some books, head on over:

Compiled Book Review Section

Latest Essay

On Some Terrors of Nothingness is a little riff on the experiment (published in Science) that found people would rather electrocute themselves than sit quietly with their thoughts for 15 min.

Increasingly, we live by these jolts of experience (or dopamine), feeding on them to feel alive, & that might be worrisome?

Read the essay here

Thanks for Reading!

If you enjoyed this, or know someone who might be interested, feel free to send them the link: https://musingmind.substack.com/

And feel free to reach out for any reason - comments, suggestions, or collaborations.