You’re probably already familiar with the Russian physiologist, Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, and his classical conditioning experiment with dogs. In this famous study, Pavlov noted that in the presence of food, the dogs would salivate reflexively and without conscious control.
Pretty obvious right?
It’s the same as when the aroma of a juicy, grass-fed steak meets your nose or that of a magnificently-prepared tofu burger (a topic for another day) — your mouth starts to water.
Anyway, the somewhat unexpected discovery Pavlov made is that the dogs would salivate even when the food wasn’t there. All they needed was a cue that they associated with food.
For example, ring a bell at the same time as giving the dog food, and after a while, all you have to do is ring the bell and it will elicit an unconscious and learned response; the dogs start drooling something wicked.
So… this type of behavior should be relegated to those “less than optimally intelligent” non-human animals, right?
I’m not so sure.
I have been thinking a lot about that nifty little device that I, and just about everyone in the modern world, carries around called a smart phone. I think it may have turned me into one of Pavlov’s dogs. I keep unconsciously looking at it and responding to its many cues, hoping it will satisfy my hunger for the gratifying experience of obtaining information and feedback.
Think about it. From an evolutionary perspective, humans are wired to obtain information and feedback. Feedback from others helps to reveal our standing and value while also speaking to our relative cohesion (or lack there of) within a group. Information about others and the world, even gossip, served to forewarn us and better prepare us to survive in ancestral times. This is still the case in the modern world.
A universe of information and feedback can now be found in unprecedented abundance on your favorite hand held device. Of course, much of the information we have access to does not assist in our survival and, in fact, most may be detrimental to it.
But try telling your brain that! It is designed to hunt and gather information and feedback and there is a reward response for doing so:
He finally called! This text is too funny! Did you see the weather report? OMG! So many people liked my Facebook status! I am relevant! (BTW please like Exist Anew’s facebook page- and all of our posts)
The point is, getting easily-accessible information and feedback about yourself and the state of everything, while helping you avoid truly important matters, is also instantly gratifying. It’s kind of like a delicious meal when you are hungry. And you are always hungry. And haven’t we come to associate smartphones with the 24/7 satisfaction of this hunger for information?
Up until recent history, however, the gathering of information and feedback was based on real, physical interaction, experience and observation with people and the world. Now, many of us are substituting these real experiences for those found staring at our hand held devices. Even in real situations with people, how often are we staring at our phones rather than interacting with the people we are with and our surroundings? (Sorry, I can’t talk to you right now because I am texting you.)
I am not trying to demonize the hunger for information and feedback nor technology. My concern is that we may be involuntarily and obsessively responding to cues that prompt us to access mostly unnecessary information, while becoming a bit addicted and increasingly alienated from people and the world.
So there it is- this little square device. It rings, beeps, vibrates, lights up, and all of these cues, including just the sight of it, suggests that it’s time for your brain to eat.
Admit it, these cues can be captivating, if only briefly, as we wait for our reward. I guess you could say we are figuratively salivating, with the thought of how those cues might lead to the satisfaction of our hunger. My question is- are we ever really being fed? Or, are we being controlled and manipulated, like Pavlov’s dogs, unconsciously salivating to cues, but never truly getting what we hunger for?