I don’t recall all that much of my youth (although it was generally pleasant), but one “regular” event sticks in my mind. Every Friday night – after our traditional erev-Shabbat dinner with all the Orthodox accoutrements (Kiddush, Blessing the Bread, singing Shabbat songs, Grace After Meals), we would all “retire” to the living room (right next to the dining room). My brother David and I would play some board game – and my parents would sit in “their” lounge chairs, intently (and contentedly) reading the newspaper.
I am an addict. Not for drugs nor for sex. It’s a curious and mostly unharmful form of addiction, one that I’m pretty sure affects other people. But I can’t say how many; no one has done any research on the matter. In any case, I’m addicted to information.
That’s not only what’s called “news”, or as we put in the academic world of mass communications “hard news”. Rather, I constantly seek dopamine gratification from learning about something new: scientific discovery or idea, philosophical argument, social phenomenon, historical analysis or finding – you name it and as long as it has some intrinsic worth or even surprise, I’m ready to absorb it.
Of course, I don’t spend my entire waking hours “sponging” for new information – just most of the time. My purpose? Much as a person might take an “upper” in order to boost performance at work, study, or even sports, so too these info-bites (occasionally full-size meals) serve me as food for thought and action – in my case, researching, writing, and “getting through the vagaries of life”.
You might be asking: how is this an “addiction”? In my case, we can start with my post-breakfast routine: several newsletters filling my email inbox from highbrow and middlebrow intellectual, political, and scientific sites. I spend at least an hour omnivorously consuming such brain food before turning to “my life”. Once chores are out of the way, it’s back to scanning the online horizon for more mind nutrition. Indeed, other than quality time with my wife Tami or playing a game of basketball with my hoop buddies, there’s not much out there I would rather do than read the latest… whatever (of intellectual novelty or practical use). I literally have to drag myself away from a book or computer screen to see a good movie (for me, “good” almost always meaning “thought-provoking”); the latest David Brooks opinion piece will attract me far more than some juicy “news” about this or that politician’s goings-on. Overall, each day I will spend hours surfing the Net to find interesting (to me) reviews of “challenging” books (in the double meaning of the term: going against conventional wisdom; complex in substance) – and from there (occasionally) hitting my Amazon button to download the tome itself.
Another sign of “addiction”: what can be called multinforming. Ingesting information while doing something else. Some examples: driving my car and listening to the radio news or hearing a lecture; ditto (the latter) when in the fitness gym (doing weights or on the treadmill); morning walks in the park while smartphone viewing a lecture series on Oceanography or The Evolution of Birds. Even “worse”: speeding up these lectures (usually to 1.5 or 1.75 speed) to be able to finish two 30-minute lectures during my 40-minute park walk. In my life, there is no “wasted time”: the radio news is my best friend while washing the dishes and taking a shower; mini-articles on my iPhone are consumed at the supermarket checkout line before reaching the cash register.
By coincidence, in the middle of my penning these lines, the magazine Scientific American just reported on medical research that shows doing exercise AND simultaneously “exercising” the mind does more for our brain than simple aerobic exercise (e.g. running on a treadmill). So, if you’re going to jog, do it outside (the brain has to keep track of the terrain) and if you can handle it, listen to a lecture or do some other mentally challenging work.
Back to the overall issue with my next question: is such overall “addiction” unusual? Probably yes and no. Let’s start with the “no”. All children are born with an insatiable hunger to learn. They are literally information sponges (being cute doesn’t hurt either – it magnetizes others to feed them with constant stimuli). Their curiosity is boundless; anything and everything is fair game to learn and understand. And even if there is little stimulus to be had at the moment, they have two other tactics: first, use their curiosity to grab things and figure out what they are and how they work; second, if a human is around, ask “why?” – again and again and again and… “Enough already! Go play with your sister…”.
When does such info-sponging become not normal (as opposed to “abnormal”), i.e. when does it become “yes, it’s unusual”? Gradually, as we become older and “life takes over”. An older friend of ours once served on the New York City Board of Education. When we told her that our oldest son was about to enter first grade, we were taken aback at her response: “Too bad; school will spoil his curiosity.”
Some of this is inevitable. After all, not every child will want to know the basics of physics or how to calculate the radius of a circle, but things like that need to be learned in order to function in our increasingly complex world. The bigger problem is that most educational systems are still more oriented to rote-learning than to teaching through figure-it-out-for yourself education.
And then, of course, there’s life: making a living, raising a family, and the like, that takes up most of our time and energy after leaving the educational system. In short, if school didn’t kill our kids’ curiosity and thirst for learning, life tends to do the job just as effectively.
And yet, this isn’t the whole explanation. We do seek out “information”, just of a different type: celebrity goings-on, political machinations (some important; others far less so), cute cat videos – you get the (YouTube/Instagram/TikTok) picture. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with harmless fun; the question is one of degree. If a person’s life is taken up mostly (or completely) by fun and games – “bread and circus” as the Romans put it – then the important information simply collapses under the weight of the weightless.
Can the opposite be true too? If over my lifetime I have spent about 90% of my free (i.e. non-working/eating/sleeping/parenting/hygiene) time sponging “hard” information and news, could that too be considered an imbalanced life? Perhaps. But that sort of depends, among other things, on the nature of the information and to what use the 90% is put: to better one’s health? professional expertise? parental and social capability? civic action? Or simply to quench the information craving, however esoteric and useless it might be? As with eating culinary food, so too with ingesting food for thought there’s a difference between gourmand and glutton.
I want to believe that I have found some semblance of balance here: a good part of my self-education is admittedly a function of what catches my intellectual fancy at the moment. But a not inconsiderable amount is purposeful – or as we academics call it: utilitarian. I read lots about medicine that helps keep me very healthy and fit; about evolutionary biology that (perhaps surprisingly) is a boon in being a better communicator with my fellow bipedal primates (also called humans); about economics, obviously helpful in investing and otherwise keeping my bank balance in the black; and so on. Even strange esoterica can be useful if one knows how to dole it out (in small amounts) during social get-togethers.
Does this make me a better person? Not at all. There’s no correlation – let alone causation – between intellectual curiosity (or even brilliance) and social-mindedness, good-heartedness, or any other definition of what a “good” person is. However – admittedly one can argue with me on this – “informaddiction” properly activated can lead to the “good life” in Platonic terms. If the term “mind your own business” is familiar to all of us, I believe that “your business should be mind” is even more apt.
To be sure, not everyone has the capability for this sort of life predilection. And many people who have a relatively high IQ might still prefer to live the entertained life rather than one of sustained self-education. If that makes them happy, fine with me (and hopefully them). To a certain extent, this type of addiction is environmentally and culturally learned: a home with shelves of books; growing up with dinner conversations about the wonders of the world; stimulating teachers. Nevertheless, it seems to me that in the final analysis, to put it simply, simplistically, and also truthfully: you are what you are.
In my case, if that makes me an egghead, so be it. The egg preceded the chicken by about 150,000,000 years (see: esoterica can be interesting!), so I figure that I have a pretty good head start continuing the advance of homo sapiens sapiens – and even (if I and/or they are lucky) resurrecting others’ curiosity.
 From the standpoint of journalism, this is what I (along with my co-author Michal Seletzky) called “general news” – not yesterday’s “political” event or economic datum (hard news), nor soft news items found in the middle and back pages of even the most erudite news institutions: food, travel, sports, culture, gossip, and the like.