Neophilia: Why New Is Never Enough

NPR recently reviewed a writer who knows exactly why you continue to check Facebook every […]

Ethan Richardson / 1.16.12

NPR recently reviewed a writer who knows exactly why you continue to check Facebook every three minutes. The woman, Winifred Gallagher, has just written a book,  New: Understanding Our Need for Novelty and Change, about the human propensity for all things new. More than it just being a symptom of modern consumerism, more than it being a competitive compulsion to get-there-first, Gallagher talks about the biological-neurological yearning for significance. We seek out new things to see if they matter, if they will help us matter, and we quickly decide whether or not this new information-gadget-diet is sufficient to make that happen. We are compelled to seek new things because we are neurologically transfixed on adaptation–on reinventing ourselves to better survive.

The NPR article doesn’t give the book five stars, but more because of what Gallagher does with the research than what the research shows. Often running off on self-help tangents, she gives “chatty” advice about how to stem and hone the strengths of this tendency, rather than being more descriptive about its roots. Either way, it’s an intriguing idea, and something with a lot of legs in the self-justification department. Saying we’re not going to survive by staying still is really just thinking we’re not enough as we are–and so we consume what’s new, perpetually, in the hopes that the new will make us new. Whether it’s the iPhone with Siri, the new bar in town, ‘getting into tennis again,’ or finally starting the show everyone’s told you you would love, you do it (and do it again, and do it again) because you relent to the desire to be made new.

Winifred Gallagher, a science writer, journalist and former psychology editor of American Health, has published, among other things, a unified theory of attention span, a researched chronicle of her own “neoagnosticism,” an investigation into the nature of identity, and a cultural history of the handbag. Rearrange the Library of Congress subject headings produced by Gallagher’s bibliography, and you could generate a pretty convincing parody of The New York Times‘ daily Most-Emailed list.

Her latest subject, therefore, comes as no surprise. In New: Understanding Our Need for Novelty and Change, Gallagher offers a study of neophilia, or “affinity for novelty,” which, as she states early on, we are “biologically as well as psychologically primed to engage with.”

Readers of popular science — a journalistic domain now mired in evolutionary psychology and diagrams of lit-up brains — will be relieved to learn that their unquenchable thirst for lowbrow dopamine squirts (new tweets about Kardashian annulments, Angry Bird high scores) isn’t only a symptom of self-discipline on the fritz. Our diverted focus is, in fact, really just an evolutionary predisposition in overdrive. Our natural neophilia is in place “to help us adapt to, learn about, and create the new things that matter, while dismissing the rest as distractions,” Gallagher writes. Though the stakes are lower than ever before (we need not filter out herds of gazelle in order to better focus on prides of lions), survival in our modern world still demands sensitivity to new things. It’s our success that requires maybe even more economical attention to them.

To illustrate this spectrum of survival and success, Gallagher opens New with an extended hypothetical anecdote. She gives us a tour of an airplane stuck on the tarmac. The jet is packed with passengers who have all just learned that takeoff has been delayed. Gallagher speculates about different travelers’ response to the news and how they handle the hassle. Some take the opportunity to get work done, others grow vexed and squander the time playing cellphone games. The 747 contains human specimens of extreme neophilia and extreme neophobia, along with those travelers who fall between the two poles — these are the ones who fare the inconvenience best of all.

…Gallagher is better at analyzing history than the present day, probably because it forces her to rely on specific textual examples rather than behavioral summaries. The book’s best chapter, by far, is “Culture, Curiosity, and Boredom,” which discusses Pandora and her box, and Eve and her apple as seminal spurs to our cultural imagination; explains the etymology of the word “novel”; and tells the story of Henry Harpending, an anthropologist who after two decades of fieldwork in Namibia has yet to elicit a Bushman word for “boredom.”

When Gallagher close-reads our own time, though, she comes up with passages that could have easily been mined from the sort of lazy magazine articles that target retirees: “When we buy a gadget,” she writes, “instead of prioritizing its usability, which is what really matters, we focus on its capability. Thus, we end up with the ones whose tons of new esoteric functions cost more, make us anxious, and will never be used.” Maybe Gallagher just needs an iPhone.