Our dopamine-driven brains are turning us into internet search fiends

Can’t stop won’t stop.
Can’t stop won’t stop.
Image: AP Photo/Andre Penner
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I am an internet search fiend. Some mornings, I wake up fantasizing about browsing online for faux-fur earmuffs or a cheap but efficient water filter. During the day, I’m constantly searching—for in-network doctors, DIY lip balm, free e-books, food delivery, freelance jobs, discount gym classes. I keep the results of my search open on a hundred little tabs. On lazy Sundays, as my boyfriend brainstorms things to do, I suggest, real casual-like, “Didn’t you need new razor cartridges? Want to… check out Amazon Prime?”

I even trawl the internet for a living. I’ve worked as a research assistant for three separate authors in New York City, helping them unearth stories buried in news reports, track down people to interview for their books, or dig up stats and data. Sometimes I get a tad over-enthusiastic. They request a single-page memo on a CEO they’re about to meet, and I turn into Hercule Poirot, tracing the CEO’s life back to her school days, sniffing out dozens of old interviews, and highlighting minor discrepancies in her answers with large red circles. It’s crazy; it’s creepy. But for two years, it has paid my rent.

In this digital age, we seem to have adapted from hunter-gatherers to searcher-sharers. A lot is said about how much we share (and overshare) online. But I’m more curious about how and why we search. How has our unprecedented access to this enormous constellation of information changed us? Here’s what I’ve found so far:

1. Online searches don’t necessarily make us smarter

One of the reasons I love searching online is the pleasure of finding an immediate answer. That heady sense of achievement, so direct and quick, reminds me of being 11 again, shooting my hand up in class or helping my mom open a pickle jar.

However, a 2015 study (PDF) by researchers at Yale University found that searching the internet for information makes people feel smarter than they actually are. With the internet accessible to us at all times, “It becomes easier to confuse your own knowledge with this external source,” lead researcher Matthew Fisher said in a press release. “[People] may be wildly inaccurate about how much they know and how dependent they are on the internet.”

Another 2011 study (PDF) published in the journal Science analyzed how Googling information is potentially rewiring our memory. Researchers found that people searching online were more likely to remember where to find a fact rather than remembering the fact itself. Participants were also more likely to forget facts that they knew were stored online. Such studies indicate that our brains are adapting to online search—but we’ve not necessarily become smarter.

2. Seeking is its own reward

Often, we turn to Google with a simple question—How in the world do you pronounce “Bvlgari?” What are the lyrics to that damn song?—only to spend the next 20 minutes falling down an internet rabbit hole. In a 2009 article for Slate, writer Emily Yoffe explored why our brains love searching online even when we don’t care that much about the answers.

Yoffe cites the landmark research of Washington State University neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, who has found that “seeking” is one of the fundamental impulses for all living things. Our need to seek out everything from food to information wakes us up and gets us through each day. Because the act of searching is driven by dopamine (a chemical associated with pleasure and addiction), we are hard-wired to enjoy it—and keep doing it.

There may be some upsides to endless internet searching. In my case, it actually helps me save money. I attack ASOS or Nasty Gal clothing sales with great ferocity. But having sought out dozens of cute outfits, I’m frozen in confusion. Leaving all tabs open, I drift away. On returning to my shopping cart days later, I find the sale has ended, or the outfits in my size sold out. Roland Barthes once compared drawers to “dusty chapels” in which we exile things we no longer want, to help ease our detachment before throwing them out. Perhaps my online browser, too, is a kind of cluttered chapel, helping me outgrow my seeking impulse.

3. Google may make us more certain of our convictions

Certain online searches leave me utterly skeptical—like asking the internet about health and nutrition. By the time I’ve read a dozen for-and-against arguments on calorie-counting, carbohydrates, or the need for monthly periods, I’m ready to throw my hands in the air and wearily echo Montaigne: “What do I know?”

But learning about competing arguments doesn’t make everyone skeptical. One study led by Dan Kahan of Yale University found that people who are “scientifically literate” often hold more extreme views on climate change. Instead of reaching a moderate, balanced conclusion, people “use scientific knowledge to reinforce beliefs that have already been shaped by their worldview.”

The National Geographic, reporting on Kahan’s study, noted that the internet could exacerbate this problem. By recording all online searches, the internet creates a “‘filter bubble’ that lets in only the information with which you already agree.” As a result, people may actually cling more tightly to their existing beliefs.

4. Online search is changing the nature of curiosity

Traditionally, curiosity has been a trait associated with adventurers and explorers. But as an internet search fiend, I know my curiosity is of the decidedly unadventurous sort. I explore the internet so I won’t be surprised—or disappointed—by real life: a closed restaurant, an out-of-stock item, an expensive bill.

Here’s the funny thing. When I’m in Mumbai, where I grew up, I rarely consult the internet before leaving my house. This despite the fact that Mumbai is far more unpredictable and random than New York. Take the example of traffic. Anyone who drives in Mumbai knows to escape traffic on the main roads by using the city’s capillary networks of teeny, tiny lanes and bylanes. Yet, these lanes can barely be searched on GPS, or even mighty Google Maps. Their knowledge is simply passed on from one generation of frustrated drivers to the next.

Mumbaikars also know that when an Uber cab says it’s “2 mins” away, there’s an error margin of 20 minutes. A road might be unexpectedly closed, or unexpectedly empty. The driver might lose his way, or find a shortcut. Everything is possible. Since technology can only predict my day in Mumbai by accident, I set off with a stoic “Que sera sera.”

It follows then that I am an internet search fiend in New York City because I can be, not necessarily because I need to be. The city has almost built a virtual replica of itself, an online Manhattan, where real-life subway trains depart in sync with their virtual twins, and delivery guys trace precisely the same paths as their on-app counterparts. Almost anything can be searched and tracked online, with accurate, real-life results.

Internet search fiend no more?

Some New Years ago, I made the resolution to allow life to surprise me more often. My mother had observed that I seemed overly controlling in New York. My boyfriend asked if we could ever go out for beer without prompting my feverish online searches for the “top 20 beer gardens in NYC.” But the final trigger was my sprightly Cypriot landlady who, while ranting about millennials, asked me, “Why are you kids always pre-occupied? Just be occupied.”

“Just be occupied.” That nutty advice hit home, and I’ve since been trying to modify my internet search habits. If I’m going out for dinner, I try not to scan the restaurant’s menu online in advance. If I sort of know the route to a museum, I avoid mapping it online. I’ve stopped clicking madly on lists like “NYC’s Six Secret Gardens!” or “Essential Advice from Famous Writers,” trusting myself to stumble upon these some day—and if not, not.

This change came at a good time. When I see my future as an internet search fiend, it’s not pretty. There is now an app that lets you search for the precise subway car that stops in front of your preferred subway exit. Hell, there’s an app (aptly named RunPee) that tells you the best times during a movie to run and pee! There would’ve been no end to my search craze.

As of now, I have, ahem, only 40 tabs open in my browser. One of those is a search for the etymology of “search.”

I found that the word stems from Old French’s cerchier (to search). But trace that back, and you reach Late Latin’s circare (to circle, to traverse, to wander hither and thither), and further still Latin’s circus (circle).

Thus, even in its oldest form, “search” is a most forgiving word. Embedded deep within, reassuringly, is the assumption of futility, of expending time wandering hither and thither. We’re not meant to land on a final answer. Rather, by simply circling some point of personal interest, we fulfil all linguistic expectations.

My boyfriend finds this hilarious. “So, whether the police say, “We’re still searching for the culprit,” or “We have circled the culprit!” it’s the same thing?” he asks, chuckling. Search me.