Brain & Mind

What’s News ?

The famous quote “Not a dog biting a man, but a man biting a dog is news.” is a great way to describe what news is, for human brain!

Brain’s job is to watch reality to develop an understanding about the cause and effect relationships found in the reality. So it is on the constant look out for patterns and anomalies: patterns (dog-bites-man) to work out what-next and anomalies (man-bites-dog), if need be, for revision of the learned patterns. These anomalies are what we call news.

Human brain is the best pattern-finding machine known to universe. You rarely notice but, over time, you become an expert fortuneteller. You figure out with reasonable accuracy that rising sun always sets (literally and metaphorically!) or stepping on a dog’s tail can result into a nasty bite. Though your brain makes you a master of the cause-and-effect working of this universe, what is even more impressive is its humbleness because it always remains open to correction.

A slightest indication of something not following the pattern kicks brain into action. Your brain has figured out that a cow has four legs, but even a rumor about a five-legged cow will instantly make you curious and drive you to know more about it. This mechanism is so critical that satisfaction of curiosity is provided with a dopamine reward in the brain!

As a self programming machine dealing with a constantly changing reality, brain has done well by evolving the dopamine reward circuit, but this mechanism seems to have gone out of sync with reality due to one change, i.e. in scale.

Humanity has failed to notice that the “reality” that our brains have evolved in so far has suffered a scale-explosion. Just a thousand years back, our brain was living in a world of the immediate. Brain was mostly dealing with a landscape limited by the transportation human legs can offer and a society of hundred or may be thousand people. While living in such a “small” reality, brain was far less prone to find anomalies/news. And then suddenly (by evolutionary scale, in a jiffy) everything changed.

Modern brain lives in a reality unimaginably vast and suffers a deluge of information/news every second. Even though it is like loading Windows 10 in a 286, our brain has held on in an admirable way till now, but we have compounded our problem by making another big error, and that is of building information networks that predominantly carry anomalies/news.

Just because our brains loved news, we opted to make information networks than bring more and more news, but we failed to notice that news in past had survival-relevance. Evolution allowed brain to invest in building dopamine reward circuit for curiosity-drive because knowing news was worth it from survival perspective.

Unfortunately, today we depend on our news-carrying networks that have no way to differentiate between survival-useful and useless news. Discovery-of-mass-in-neutrinos and shoe-size-of-Kim-Kardashian are both news for our networks. Just as our networks, our brains are also incapable of distinguishing the useful, and when market forces enter the equation, what we end up is cacophony of news as we see now.

As we are just entering the information age, we are yet to fully understand the impact of this huge change in how information reaches us and what it will do to our brain, but it is abundantly clear that it is, possibly, the greatest challenge of our times.

At this point, lacking any technological options, we must use what we have i.e. human discretion to hold the information deluge at bay. People capable of walking the tight rope of freedom-of-information and information-chaos are needed to save the news and our brains!

I am happy to admit that I have managed surviving till now with minimum effort as all my intellect has be used to avoid doing anything meaningful. As I needed to while all the free time I generated in course of being lazy, science has been my favorite muse that I have enjoyed company of. As an effort to kill time (in a way, to get even with it) one fine day I decided to write a science column, more for my personal amusement than to attract readers. After getting educated about the attention span of modern readers from my editor, it became more like a challenge to tackle esoteric subjects in 600 words that I have managed to remain interested in for more than a year now. I do not want to add my worldly profile here as these are ideas that need to be considered only on the merits they carry and not as an opinion of a certain human being.

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