Stone Age minds in internet time

1 minute read

The journalist Kenneth Miller has an article in the current Discover magazine on “How Our Ancient Brains Are Coping in the Age of Digital Distraction”. I make a brief appearance to help explain the genetic complexity of brain evolution on the human lineage.

It’s a good article and I’m going to assign it for my undergraduate class next week. My last week theme always covers what biological anthropology can tell us about the future of humanity. Usually people go overboard on the idea of “Stone Age minds”, but a look at optimality theory is rarely unrewarded.

Humans, of course, forage for data more voraciously than any other animal. And, like most foragers, we follow instinctive strategies for optimizing our search. Behavioral ecologists who study animals seeking nourishment have developed various models to predict their likely course of action. One of these, the marginal value theorem (MVT), applies to foragers in areas where food is found in patches, with resource-poor areas in between. The MVT can predict, for example, when a squirrel will quit gathering acorns in one tree and move on to the next, based on a formula assessing the costs and benefits of staying put — the number of nuts acquired per minute versus the time required for travel, and so on. Gazzaley sees the digital landscape as a similar environment, in which the patches are sources of information — a website, a smartphone, an email program. He believes an MVT-like formula may govern our online foraging: Each data patch provides diminishing returns over time as we use up information available there, or as we start to worry that better data might be available elsewhere.

Yeah, my problem is that whatever I am writing tends to look like diminishing marginal value too quickly!