Monday, January 2, 2012

New by Winifred Gallagher - Book Review

 In New: Understanding Our Need for Novelty and Change (The Penguin Press, 2012, $25.95) Winifred Gallagher has drawn on genetic research about the effects of the neurotransmitter dopamine and synthesizied this work with explorations of our science and social science to explore how we experience the “new” in our lives. The “new” effects how our restless seeking for what is new or our stubborn resistance to it can be seen as a result of the complex interactions between our nature (what we're made of) and our nurture (what happens to us) creating quite distinct ways to interact with the world. Gallagher's work carries significant relevance to our personal posture to the world as well as schools and schooling, parenting, national policy issues, and self-development. Understanding and seeking to apply her ideas and insights can make substantial differences in our approach to our own lives and our understanding of the world around us. This slim volume contains important ideas while never falling to the level of what one would call a self-help book. The book is well supported with notes and an index.

Winifred Gallagher uses the words neophila and its opposite neophobia to describe our reactions to confronting the “new” in our lives. It turns out these are pretty new words used most frequently by “... most hackers, SF fans, and members of several other connected leading-edge subcultures” according to the online Hyperdictionary. Regardless of derivation, the word will suffice in the context of this very interesting and stimulating book. “Stimulating” is here used advisedly because Gallagher claims much of our response to new elements we encounter in our world is governed by the neurotransmitter Dopamine, which, according to Wikipedia, is associated with “feelings of enjoyment and reinforcement to motivate a person to perform certain activities.” In short, some people are drawn to newness in their lives, while others seek to avoid it. About half of our reaction can be attributed to genetics while the rest depends more on environmental and interpersonal experiences in our lives (nature vs. nurture). The book is mostly readable, although it sometimes drifts off into the minutia of neurophsyiology with its extended discussion of how dopamine works as a neurotransmitter. It remains on firmer, more accessible ground when treating human history, evolution, sociology, anthropology, and psychology, using frequent and easily understood examples.

While Gallagher dates the dawn of the current information age from the 1960's, she also makes an excellent case for humankind as a striving people who have sought to bend their world to their needs since they first cooked meat on a fire or developed spoken language. While the pace of change has vastly accelerated since the Industrial Revolution, our history is a one of making change against the resistance within our own kind. And yet, she argues that those who say “Slow down!” or “Let's not!” provide a valuable brake on the headlong rush for the excitement of the “new” experienced by neophiles with their addiction to dopamine highs. She warns, however, that the accelerating pace of change may cause increasing problems in adjusting to change, even for neophiles, but, more especially, for those whose ability to adapt are hampered by increasing age or inborn reluctance to embrace the new whom she calls neophobes. The author tends to look down on the neophobes, seeing them as holding back progress, but asserting the vast majority of us lie somewhere in the middle, weighing matters in the balance before deciding which way to jump, or when to become adopters of ideas that were once new.

Towards the end of New, Gallagher considers the mental, emotional, and even physical risks of sensory overload in the new cyber world. Of particular interest is her discussion of the impossibility of multitasking. She suggests that instead of doing multiple tasks at once, we are rapidly switching between them, doing none well and often missing significant details. She emphasizes the well-recognized risk of driving and texting. As a driver, nothing frighten me more than sharing the road with someone who's texting or, worse still, reading a book while driving. Gallagher asserts, “Research has clearly established that multitasking is a myth, but many people can't accept the fact.” (200) Nevertheless, people continue to think they can drive, even on traffic filled, fast superhighways devoting only a part of their attention to the road as they catch up on their calls and text messages. Efforts to outlaw this practice without the participation and cooperation of the auto and cell phone industries will prove impossible. Meanwhile, the proliferation of cell towers along the Interstate highway system suggests they are doing just the opposite of what's necessary. She strongly draws an analogy between the intermittent reinforcement found in gambling and electronic reinforcement from bells, frequent posts, Tweets, and so-on suggesting the distinct possibility of information or sensory addiction to electronic stimulation based on the production of dopamine. On the other hand “opting for the sure thing,however, funnels you into the same experience you always have and closes the door to new possibilities.” (210 – 11) Perhaps such a reaction is the inevitable response to so much coming at us at once. I wonder whether the increasingly frantic rhetoric from the political right don't reflect such a response. 

Winifred Gallagher
For people interested in examining their own reactions, those of people they know, or those of the society to innovation and “newness” in society, Winifred Gallagher's book New: Understanding OurNeed for Novelty and Change presents much food for thought without ever becoming overwhelming itself. Her language is accessible, her examples numerous, her support sufficient to show she's done her homework. I'd appreciate a page of suggested readings for further study, but that's just a small quibble. Meanwhile, readers attuned to the neurological, social, and political implications of rapid change and our response to it will make connections to their own background and experience, each finding different realms to consider. The book is published by The Penguin Group (2012) and is widely available. I was provided a copy of the book by the publisher through TLC Book Tours.

Other Stops on Winifred Gallagher's Book Tour

Thursday, December 29th: Amusing Reviews
Friday, December 30th: Bibliosue
Monday, January 2nd: Ted Lehmann’s Bluegrass, Books, and Brainstorms
Tuesday, January 10th: Happy Simple Living
Wednesday, January 11th: Evolution You
Monday, January 23rd: One Frugal Girl
Monday, January 30th: Eco-Friendly and Frugal
Monday, January 30th: My Year(s) of Spending Less and Living More
Wednesday, February 1st: Everyday Simplicity