You Didn't Have Any Lions to Run From, So You Clicked on This

The evolutionary causes of the Internet's inescapable charisma
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Click here to avoid getting devoured by this guy. (Shutterstock/counterspell)

So here you are, once again, on the Internet. (Hello, there. Welcome back, friend.) Here you are, another Norm within the Cheers that is the World Wide Web, hanging out in the place where everybody (or, more likely, nobody) knows your name.

But why are you really here? I mean, why are you really here? Why, ultimately, do you -- and, because I'm right here with you, we -- keep coming back to this crazy place, day after day? 

It's easy to attribute the web's ongoing magnetism to the powerful combination that is "human connection" and "cat videos"; that isn't the full story, though. The Internet is beguiling not just because of its content, but because of its structure.

That's according to Tom Stafford, a cognitive scientist at the University of Sheffield in the U.K. The Internet, Stafford told LiveScience, offers the same kind of incentives and rewards that, say, slot machines do: You could pull several -- even several hundred -- rounds of duds (cherry-bar-7! bell-bell-lemon! unfunny "humor" piece! terrible listicle! bell-bell-lemon!). But when you get that one payoff -- when you hit even the smallest of jackpots -- your patience is rewarded. The monotony of the arm-pulls or the button-presses seems to be justified by the win. You get a rush of dopamine. You are happy. (For more on how this works, check out the excellent "No Armed Bandit" episode of Roman Mars's 99 Percent Invisible podcast.)

In the same way, Stafford suggets, the Internet offers cognitive rewards -- "a tidbit of juicy gossip," say, or "a heartfelt email" -- within its mix of bars and lemons and creaky gifs. The payoff is instant; the reward is quick; and this, LiveScience puts it, "only strengthens the Internet's pull." As a massive sociological experiment, the Internet effectively turns us into Pavlov's dogs: It conditions us to respond, automatically and physically, to the promise of future rewards. The little gems we encounter -- from early Mark Twain stories to cats-and-pot-bellied-pigs -- offer rushes of joy. Over time, we come to crave that rush. And we know exactly where to get it.

So, yeah. The next time you wonder whether you're spending too much time on Facebook or Buzzfeed or whatever, just remind yourself: You're wasting time because your brain wants you toThe Internet's charisma is a function not just of all the great stuff that lives on it, but also of humans' carefully honed survival mechanisms -- mechanisms evolved long ago, in response to vicious enemies. We can't quit our cat videos, it turns out, because of ... lions.

That's per Linda Stone, a researcher who has studied the physiological effects of Internet use. (She's the one who coined the all-too-useful term "continuous partial attention," and you can read more on her work, via a fantastic interview with James Fallows, here.) Stone told LiveScience that much of our compulsive behavior when it comes to our screens -- and to email in particular -- can be attributed to the fight-or-flight response that originated with early humans' need to escape predators. That response is a function of our autonomic nervous system (a condition also known as hyperarousal), and it prepares us, as its name suggests, either to run away from our attackers or to stick around and do battle with them.

The Internet, a plain whose grasses hide so many digital predators, can activate that same response in contemporary humans. It offers "fight" and "flight" in one tidy package. Reading emails or hunching over a screen, Stone says, can cause people to go into a kind of resting state. Some 80 percent of people, she has shown, stop breathing (temporarily) or start breathing shallowly (continuously) when they check their email or look at a screen. Stone calls this condition "email apnea." And she attributes it to our anticipation that the stuff we're scanning will eventually require a response from us. Our drone-like surveys of our screens will eventually reveal an email from our boss or a note from a friend. And, when that happens, we'll need to spring to action to respond. 

We anticipate this, Stone suggests, by holding our breaths -- storing our energy -- as we look at our screens. Spacing out is, in its way, a survival mechanism. It's the system we've developed, in spite of ourselves, for navigating the crazy environment that spreads out before us -- an environment that reveals itself, increasingly, on screens. 

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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