Seek and Ye Shall Seek

August 14, 2009


Seeking. You can’t stop doing it. Sometimes it feels as if the basic drives for food, sex, and sleep have been overridden by a new need for endless nuggets of electronic information. We are so insatiably curious that we gather data even if it gets us in trouble.

The fascinating, if not alarming, article quoted lays out research on the neurology of seeking and how its rewards differ from those of finding. It does so with reference to the digital searching that many of us do so much of — and some of us pride ourselves on doing so effectively. The findings may well be sobering.

But I have a couple of supplementary thoughts:

(1) I was trained in musicology and attendant disciplines by pre-Internet worthies who delighted in spending hours and days and months and years in, say, the British Library (where I have also done my time with somewhat modified rapture). While the process and rewards were on a very different time-frame for them, I can’t help wondering if the phenomena really differed in kind from what many — scholars and non-scholars — now experience (much sped-up) while negotiating the World Wide Web.

(2) Are some of the sensations described really so dependent on new media or even on explicit research? I’m working right now on a piece of music that is a couple of hundred years old. I’m under the impression that I’m being the beneficiary of a torrent of insights about this work that lead from one to another. There is before me no image of a final, complete revelation of ultimate truth. But there is the thrill of each small insight that gives birth to another — in a temporal frame that is unpredictable and, to something in my brain (or what feels like my soul), infinitely delightful.

Is there really anything new under the sun in kind, or only in degree?

UPDATE: Here’s an article that adds some nuance to aspects of the Slate piece, including why people who know somthing about, e.g., music always are looking for more knowledge, whereas people who don’t know anything about it don’t want to know anything.

FURTHER UPDATE: An article that disagrees with aspects of the original SLATE article actually gives support, it seems to me, to my hypothesis about the rewards of musical searching. And it seems that studying a piece of music gives us both the learned kind of reward (since certain skills are involved that must be acquired) and the instinctive rewards since, whether music is as necessary as food or not, it is as ubiquitous among humans as food is. And, at least for some of us, the rewards are comparable. We can actually hunger for music, and we find some music more nourishing than other music. The skills are acquired, but the need and its fulfillment are inborn.

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