What Turns Us On

Shining a cool, clear light on the things that fascinate

A man I know recently confided to close friends over dinner his intention to end his marriage. It was not, he explained, that he and his wife did not love each other; the trouble was they did not respond to each other. We all nodded, understanding perfectly what he was referring to—that rich and resonant feeling of affinity, the big, open yes that makes this particular person seem different from all others, more compelling, able somehow to uncork emotion that usually stays contained. None of us questioned that the absence of this feeling diminished my friend’s relationship.

Just as we respond to some people but not others, some privileged kinds of information can draw from us a big, open yes—whether that information comes in the form of a soaring guitar riff, a novel that entangles us in its characters’ lives, or an idea that is so beautiful or startling or lucid that it sets up permanent residence in the mind. Most of us do not feel the urge to analyze these responses, but we seek them out wherever we possibly can. Such experiences, we feel, are what make us profoundly human, in the most spiritual sense of the word. According to author Jim Davies, what we respond to with the greatest openness does indeed reveal something profound about our humanity—but he is interested in a scientific understanding of this aspect of humanity. In his book Riveted: The Science of Why Jokes Make Us Laugh, Movies Make Us Cry and Religion Makes Us Feel One with the Universe, he explores why certain kinds of information seem especially compelling to us as members of the biological species of humans.

It has been known for some time that the human mind plays favourites with information, and the same is true for many other animals. Scientists see evidence of this in learning biases; some facts about the world are simply easier to learn than others. For example, rhesus monkeys are not innately programmed to fear snakes, as shown in a 1989 study by Michael Cook and Susan Mineka—monkeys who had no experience with them comfortably played with toy snakes, but they very quickly learned to be afraid if they saw videos of other monkeys responding to toy snakes with alarm. This social learning is powerful, but also very narrow: when shown videos of monkeys recoiling from flowers or toy rabbits, the observing monkeys failed to conclude that flowers and rabbits are fearsome objects. Although the fear itself is not innate, rhesus monkeys find it easier to learn to associate danger with potential predators than with truly benign objects or animals. Similar learning biases can be seen in many other species. For instance, laboratory rats can learn that foods with a certain smell will make them sick, but not that foods of a certain colour, or foods that are accompanied by certain sounds, will make them sick, even when these correlations are just as robust. Pigeons can learn to associate arbitrary sounds but not colours with danger, but when learning about the quality of food, the reverse is true: they pay attention to colour but not to sound. We humans display much more intricate learning biases—for example, our brains seem especially eager to learn exactly the kinds of patterns that are most commonly found among the world’s languages.

Many of these learning biases probably developed over the course of evolution to make it easier for us to learn the patterns and relationships that were most likely to be useful to us. More recently, scientists have begun to explore whether there is a similar evolutionary origin to the allure of art or certain ideas, as an outgrowth of biases that led our ancestors to orient to information that helped propagate their genes. (Previous examples of books by scholars advancing this argument include Denis Dutton’s The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution and Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.) Davies, a professor of cognitive science at Carleton University, is among those who claim that we are innately tuned to find certain information especially compelling, so that when we encounter it, we respond deeply and viscerally. We take it in with a special openness. It resonates as profoundly true or beautiful.

Davies has published a respectable stack of scientific papers dealing with the psychology of imagination, art, creativity and religion. In Riveted, he takes us well beyond the walls of his own laboratory, acting as an informed guide, taking the reader on an attraction-packed tour of the last two decades’ worth of scientific studies probing the informational affinities and biases of humans. While he acknowledges that a person’s aesthetic preferences are shaped partly by life experiences or culture, his interest lies mainly in the regular tendencies that crop up again and again. These regularities can be loosely grouped into broad themes: for example, our intensely social predispositions, our compulsion to discern patterns and our attraction to the incongruous or novel. The exposition is at times unsatisfying, and the research itself often speculative, but the sights that the author points out are undeniably captivating. Riveted is riddled with examples that will prompt readers to develop a habit of questioning what underlies their own fascinations—and that is surely the point of the book.

For instance, some interesting consequences may come from the fact that we humans are uniquely obsessed with social dimensions of reality. We devote abundant brain energy to noting and analyzing the intentions and motivations of others, determining whether they are noble or evil, whether they are likely to behave in ways that will benefit others, or whether they are self-serving cheaters. Such concerns are critical to our survival and, as a result, we are wired to find them fascinating. As Davies points out, humans have been riveted by stories throughout history—but there is no such thing as a story without characters. It is hard to tell a story about a geological event or a violent storm unless it includes human (or humanized) characters. This fascination with the behaviour of social and moral beings, argues Davies, gives us a hearty appetite for a good story, all the more if it involves secret plots or reveals a character’s complex motives. It is also what makes some explanations seem more intuitively right than others. Without years of scientific inculcation, which explanation is more likely to resonate as true: that your child died because of a germ that is too small to be seen, or that she died because your mortal enemy cast a curse on her? Even when we know about germs, our minds may flail about for something more, a reason, not merely a cause: perhaps the death was intended by God to test our fortitude or to punish us for our misdeeds. The distinction between how we respond to “deeper” reasons that are couched in terms of the goals and intentions of sentient beings as opposed to mere causal explanations mirrors my friend’s complaint about what was missing in his marriage: we may intellectually appreciate and accept a mechanistic explanation, but we are apt to feel a spiritual void at the lack of purposefulness of it all. That is, we may understand, but we do not respond.

Naturally, we risk being betrayed by our inherent biases, and this point represents the central preoccupation of the book. It is all well and good for a rat in its natural environment to ignore the connection between bad food and the sound that it hears at the moment the food becomes visible—this connection is not likely to ever be meaningful in nature. But the rat is out of luck if it lives in a lab in which such artificial correlations can easily exist. Humans living in complex industrialized societies are all like lab rats who have artificially manipulated their environments to bear little resemblance to the natural surroundings in which their cognitive biases evolved, all of which makes us vulnerable to favouring the wrong information.

The lure of conspiracy theories or the false but resilient belief that vaccines cause autism are just two of the more obvious ways in which biases can interfere with an accurate appraisal of reality. Davies also describes a more subtle problem in the distorted understanding of the world that comes from paying attention to the news. We are predisposed to be most interested in events that are unusual, especially if they also involve some element of danger. In our previous evolutionary history, this made sense: routine events were probably already well understood, whereas new and unusual ones called for some extra mental energy to figure out—and were especially important to understand if they were threatening. Moreover, in humanity’s earlier days, the frequency with which we became aware of certain events, whether through direct observation or very close secondhand accounts, corresponded fairly closely to the actual frequency of those events. It also made sense, therefore, for us to be wired to believe that our own awareness of events was fairly well aligned with reality. But on today’s interconnected, technologically inundated globe, when media outlets choose which of the world’s millions of events to spotlight, they -naturally handpick those select few that viewers find most compelling: dramatic abductions, incidents of over-the-top road rage or gruesome terrorist attacks. In turn, we make generalizations about reality based on what we see in the news. As Davies points out, this dynamic virtually guarantees that “news tells us things that are anomalous, which we then perceive as common and probable.” Hence, public perception is that crime is soaring to epidemic proportions, even as the actual incidence of crime continues to fall—an error made all the more sobering by the fact the policy makers often pander to it.

Riveted offers a sprawling catalogue of scientific studies that shed light on the ideas and patterns we find most alluring. The book is an outstanding resource for curious readers—my own copy of the references section was smothered with sticky notes flagging articles to track down for further reading. But at times, the book can be frustrating to read. While covering an impressive range of research, the author rarely provides enough detail about individual studies to give outsiders a clear sense of the methods that were used or to allow readers to raise valid critical questions. And as much as the book blurs out many of the details of cited experiments, it also stops short of truly grappling with the larger implications of the research that is discussed. The effect is a bit like having an exuberant collector dump out his box of fascinating objects, leaving you to make of them what you will.

Interestingly, Riveted also eschews many of the aesthetic devices that would likely draw an emotionally satisfying response from the reader. A cover blurb from Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic magazine, compares Jim Davies to Malcolm Gladwell, but the book is almost anti-Gladwellian in its stylistic choices. There is little here in the way of story, no characters to speak of, few arresting real-life details, and no unexpected plot twists or even any discernible narrative arc. It is hard not to miss these elements, but given the book’s subject matter, it is also hard not to wonder whether their presence would provide a distorting lens—after all, Gladwell has been rightly criticized by scientists for selectively plundering the body of evidence for just those details that fit with the most compelling story. In an era where “story” is a prized journalistic value (perhaps the most prized of all), the very content of this book provides fodder for questioning the role of a gripping tale in popular scientific writing. As Davies himself advises: “Use extra caution with the talented and be more generous with those lacking in rhetorical and linguistic skills.”

Still, there is the matter of that big, transcendent yes. In the closing words of the book, Davies assures us that we can embrace the pleasures of our responses but at the same time we need to be wary of them. However, he downplays the existential upheaval that can occur in taking such a rationalist view, a view in which our warmest responses are to be help under a cool, distrusting light. Does the pursuit of aesthetic, spiritual or romantic ecstasy lose some of its meaning if we perceive it to be the result of evolutionary tricks to get us to pay close attention to certain information—tricks that, by the way, may no longer even be in our best evolutionary interest? Indeed, our very survival as a species in this complex world of our own making may well demand that we understand, examine and often resist our inherent biases. What is less clear is whether we can do this without also undoing—and remaking—our experience of what it means to be human.