Last week, my mum got lost driving us home.
“I’m just trying a new way,” she assured me. “It’s good for your brain.”
I’ve endured a lifetime of this logic. “It’s good for your brain” is the same reason she uses to justify stopping to read every placard she passes. She is tediously inquisitive and unbelievably weird.
But weirdness is a rarity in an increasingly digital world. Online, our personalities are distilled into a series of zeros and ones. To be a modern citizen is to have your interests, hopes, desires and insecurities mapped onto a flattened algorithmic reflection of yourself.
The result is that we are served exactly what we want, when we want, and where we want it. Addiction expert Dr Anna Lembke says that the promise of satisfaction on social media has spawned a generation of dopamine addicts. She calls smartphones the “modern-day hypodermic needle”. My therapist would say this is true for me.
As you stumble across a new favourite artist on Spotify, a rush of dopamine is released. It feels rare and special, unique to you. It feels serendipitous, despite the knowledge that an algorithm created that moment for you.
Every spare moment offers the chance to be stimulated in this way, to be distracted from the discomfort of life. It’s a great fix for anxious twenty-somethings whose mothers have trapped them in a car and won’t admit they’re going the wrong way.
The great promise of the internet was that it would expand users’ understanding of the world. With lightning speed, people could stumble upon something new, weird, and exciting that was previously outside their reach.
In many ways, this has proved true. Minority groups have found communities on the internet that may not exist in their physical world. It is the shared language of the chronically online that enables meme culture, humour, levity, escapism and most importantly, connection. Here, we can find magic and joy.
But how much of that magic is engineered? Nowadays even the most niche interests are warped into an addictive monoculture that keeps users coming back for more. Lembke says that the overconsumption of anything good will ultimately turn our perception of it sour.
“Our brain compensates by bringing us lower and lower and lower,” she says.
Recently, on a hike along the Great Ocean Road, Mum complained that the path was too defined. An avid bushwalker, she had left the house anticipating a wild and sprawling landscape through which she could craft her own journey. On this day, the sandy and pebbled track was too constricting for her taste.
“Where’s the adventure?” she asked.
This is how it feels to exist on the internet in 2023. As a journalist-in-training, it is my job to find the weird, the unusual and the untold stories to write about. As I scroll Twitter, desperately grasping for something fresh, I think of my mum. She lives in fear that my synapses will fizzle into oblivion, absorbed by the dopamine hole that is my phone.
New York Times writer Clive Thompson has written extensively about a solution to this modern problem. It’s an idea he calls “rewilding your attention”. Turning your consciousness towards the randomness of the world beyond the monotony of curated algorithms.
Thompson’s version of “rewilding your attention” recommends digging deeper into the weird and wilder parts of the internet, but this logic can be applied just as easily offline. It’s imperative to our collective future that we do so.
It’s been almost a year since I moved to Sydney. By now I am buried in the familiar comfort of routine, a key feature of which is an ambling walk home from the train station. I complete it at double speed with my headphones firing. This week, I chose to get lost.
Meandering down a new street I found a bench. Rickety and decaying, it faced a breathtaking view. Here, I thought about my mother. My mother who I become more like every day. My mother, who drinks turmeric lattes and reads strange books and tries new food because “it’s good for your brain.” My mother who always has a story about a happy accident that has befallen her.
The fact of the matter is that serendipity is a farce. There is no cosmic force that will put us in the right place at the right time. Weirdness is born from openness.
The antidote to dopamine addiction is simple.
Rewild your attention. Choose the wrong way home.