Is Mindless Scrolling the Death of Curiosity? Interview with Jaan Aru, Ph.D in Neuroscience

Soulie
11 min readApr 3, 2023

Why is it important to be creative and curious? Is scrolling the death of curiosity? How exactly does scrolling affect our brain and why should we care? Our co-founder & CMO Ann Järvekülg and Ph.D Jaan Aru sat down for a chat.

Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do?

My name is Jaan Aru and I’m a neuroscientist. Officially, I’m an associate professor of Artificial Intelligence, however, I’m simply a person who likes to think about the brain and the mind. I like to combine ideas from different fields and come up with new ideas about how our minds work.

You have done research on the topic of creativity and curiosity. What are some of the latest discoveries you’ve made that have got you excited?

An idea that we’ve recently proposed is that in our brains, we’ve got a specific mechanism of creativity. When you’re reading this article, the brain area in question is processing memories, it’s learning. However, when you’re doing nothing, the same area spits out different bits and pieces which get combined in your brain and can be made into new ideas.

So are you saying that to process the information we learn every day, we need to just do nothing and let our minds wander?

If you want to be creative, you have to have a lot of different pieces of knowledge in your brain. To combine that material, you have to take time off and give yourself moments where you just simply let your mind wander. That’s when your brain can come up with amazing, novel combinations.

We associate creativity with painters, musicians and scientists… Why should someone want to be creative, why is it necessary?

The biggest problem with creativity is that there are so many myths about creativity! The one basic myth is that creativity is only something that artists and singers have. That’s not true! Creativity is something that we all have in our brains and that we can all make use of.

In essence, creativity is about coming up with new ideas, and we need to come up with new ideas in any and all fields. Even if you’re doing the simplest task, you still want to be creative. So for that reason we all should strive for being creative and to have the ability to come up with new ideas.

So how can someone who doesn’t think they are creative recognize creativity in themselves?

The first thing to know about creativity is that we all have this capability! The second thing is how to use it, or how to awaken it.

If you want to be creative, you have to know stuff. There have to be pieces of knowledge inside your brain. You can’t simply decide to be creative one day out of thin air, you need to learn about a topic or the particular field that you want to be creative in. And then, you actually need to aim for coming up with new things, you have to purposefully try to combine the bits and pieces that you have gathered and to combine them to generate new ideas.

What opportunities do you see for technology in the role of fostering creativity?

It’s not enough to just have pieces of knowledge that you can combine, it’s also important that those pieces of knowledge are very good. In essence, the fact that we can access all kinds of information online via technology is perfect for providing us with these bits and pieces of knowledge. But of course, today’s systems don’t exactly succeed in giving us good bits and pieces of knowledge.

What would be your top 3 tips to become more creative if you’re already busy with school, work & life?

The first tip is to actually be aware of the ability that you have. You can be creative!

Second, if you want to be creative, set aside the time where you actually do your creative work. We all have our calendars chock full, you won’t find time for it if you don’t make some.

And thirdly — during that time, only focus on the stuff you want to be creative on, learn what others have done and try to come up with new ideas.

What is the importance of curiosity in our everyday lives, according to a neuroscientist?

Curiosity means that we have a purpose, that we have a goal. It’s when we want to do something, we want to understand something. Curiosity is the essence of being human.

Do you think curiosity and creativity are interlinked in any way? And how?

Curiosity is necessary for creativity, because if you don’t want to build anything new or come up with new ideas, you cannot be creative. On the other hand, too much curiosity can also hinder creativity. If you’re so curious that you only want to keep learning about new things, you don’t take the time to actually study a topic in depth.

So would you say that creativity and curiosity are more valuable if you focus them on one topic, rather than being curious about many things?

There should be a balance between curiosity and creativity. In general, of course, being curious is important for creativity. You can be curious about different fields and different topics. But it simply means that if you want to be creative and want to come up with new things, then you cannot be curious about everything the whole day, you also have to take the time where you focus on one thing and try to get it straight.

To be curious means to seek out new information. Today, social media platforms and other types of media platforms keep on constantly delivering us content that is semi-interesting or relevant to us. Can we call learning things on social media curiosity?

If we talk about curiosity and social media, the way I find most useful to make this connection is the following: when we are curious, the control, the signal and the goal comes from within us — we want to learn new information. Yes, it’s possible to use social media for that purpose. However, if we are simply mindlessly scrolling then the control is coming from within the algorithm of social media, not from within us. It overtakes and hijacks our brain. So the goal and control is not within us anymore.

How do you think that ongoing mindless content consumption can affect a person’s curiosity?

The main is that when you’re mindlessly scrolling, your brain doesn’t have to do any active work to get bits and pieces of information. You are being controlled by the algorithm and over time, it hinders your intrinsic curiosity.

Do you think it’s dangerous in any way?

Mindless scrolling is dangerous simply because it really harms our intrinsic ability to be creative and curious. It takes away the time! As I said — to be creative, you need time. If you spend 5 hours a day scrolling, you simply do not have the time nor the ability to be intrinsically curious and motivated.

Can you give me a good reason why I should stop the next time I catch myself mindlessly scrolling? What should I do instead?

One important thing about mindless scrolling is to acknowledge that when we mindlessly scroll, we are controlled by the algorithms. And nobody wants to be controlled, right? So this is the way I explain it to people — if you want to be in control of your life, then you should always catch the moment where you start scrolling mindlessly and tell yourself that you need to stop and do something else. Anything else is better, but if it’s something that has to do with creativity or you being curious, trying to learn something about some aspect of the world, then that’s even better.

You’ve mentioned algorithms during our chat, what do you think about the content platforms of today, how have they affected our relationship with curiosity and creativity over time?

I think social media platforms — they tap into our intrinsic wish to get novel content. And that is the essence of curiosity, right? But these algorithms, they tap into that wish by delivering us content, killing active curiosity while providing us novel input. It’s really the death of curiosity. Your brain gets novel content without being active, without being curious, without being creative.

If you could give big social media platforms with infinite scrolling feeds any input, what product advice would you give to them?

When we look at those platforms with infinitely scrollable feeds, the question I always have is — what purpose is this serving? It really seems that the only purpose it serves is to keep people in the loop for longer. But why would we want that? These technologies could be used for much better purposes. They could be used to boost and facilitate our creativity and curiosity.

Bonus round! We also asked our Soulie Community to submit their questions to Jaan. Here’s what our community members were curious about, and what Jaan had to say:

I have a question that I tried to answer for a along time without success: I’ve always needed to focus on more than one project at a time to better focus, but now with the neverending worries of life and news sent directly to you on every device I can’t seem to focus not even on a single task. I’ve developed a sense of procrastination whenever I access my email or mobile phone and I can’t seem to break this pattern; Is there a method to switch to a better focused approach, letting go of external worries?
(by Alan)

So when we want to be creative and curious, we want to amplify our intrinsic abilities, then it’s important that we take time for that attentive work. I’m not saying that you have to be attentive all day, that you always have to only focus on one task at a time. However, we need to switch things up so there are these time windows every day where you focus on one thing at a time. Make it easy for yourself by turning off notifications for that time. I mean yeah, from the outside it may look like notifications are good, they give you information quickly. But when we look from inside the brain we know that this distracts you. So for some hours every day, keep notifications down, close the browser windows. Try to enjoy the fact that you are only focusing on one thing! And then, for example, after lunch, if you’re in a lunch coma — feel free to answer emails and do many things simultaneously.

Many people say that procrastination is a coping mechanism, but what does it mean for us and how to understand procrastination?
(by Nicholas)

We have to understand that our brains are LAZY. They do not want to do hard work, they don’t want to focus. Today’s information environment gives our brain the perfect reason for always putting things off, not doing active work. So whenever you get this feeling where you are starting to work but then the idea comes that there might be something cool lurking in social media, or that you had an ongoing chat… This is your lazy brain! It tries to make you stop doing focused work. That’s why we put things off. But if you want to succeed, to use your brain and be creative, you have to work around that.

So how can we work around that?

The first thing to do to deal with this problem is to become aware of it! To be aware that it’s not actually that you’re tired of focusing, or that you really need or want to do things like go on social media, despite what your brain tells you. It’s important to understand that there are many competing systems in your brain. We have to find a way of helping the more rational side of the brain that tells us “Hey, I actually want to do this task, it’s important to me”. One way to do it is to have your own rules. Like setting aside an hour where you do your creative work, and whatever ideas you get about going on social media, you won’t do that. Even if you feel that you’re not getting any work done, then just sit there for an hour.

Another thing, again, is to turn off all the temptations. The temptation gets increasingly higher if your phone is constantly beeping and sending notifications. So let’s make it easier for ourselves by making the environment cleaner.

Before I got really into social media, I used to love gaming, reading and drawing. But now that I spend many hours of my day scrolling, I can’t seem to find anything else interesting or worth wasting time on. I have to switch hobbies every 3 days to stay busy and keep myself from going on my phone. Is it possible to be addicted to scrolling? If so, how is it possible? Scrolling isn’t that enjoyable. (by Melodifie)

So the question is — how can we get addicted to this very simple and stupid thing of scrolling? The mechanism is relatively simple. In our brains we have pleasure circuits, circuits that activate whenever we do something that is pleasurable. One thing that offers pleasure to us is novel information. So whenever you get something novel, this circuit in your brain lights up. The circuit activity from checking out one new post is not that high. But that’s the beautiful and devilish mechanism of social media that you can scroll. Simply moving your thumb brings another piece of reward, and then another one, and another one.. And that keeps you in the loop, that is the mechanism that gets you addicted. So in the end it’s true, it’s a stupid mechanism but it’s a very effective mechanism that all these apps tap into.

So scrolling doesn’t need to be enjoyable to be addictive?

Wherever we have an addiction, it’s not necessarily that this thing is pleasurable. Addicts can have various troubles with their own behavior. However, the essence of addiction is that you have to do the activity, your brain forces you to do it, you simply cannot do anything else.

I am not sure if this is related to neuroscience, but I am really interested in Brain-computer bidirectional interface, possibly without surgery. I’d like to create, or possibly work on a device that you can have on your hand as an accessory (glasses for example), which could help you use augmented reality in real life and be able to interact with it using only the brain instead of voice. Is something like this possible/being researched? Are there any related articles? (by Lukáš Anda)

So there is quite some research on augmented reality, and there is research on brain-computer interfaces. The question is of course whether and how you can put these things together. One big problem is that the signals we can read non-invasively from the skull are rather limited. So yes, it would sound cool if you could put electrodes on the skull and could control a device simply like that. However, the signals we get from the skull are noisy. So in that sense, these kinds of technologies will be always limited as there is no workaround. Basically, the only workaround is to put electrodes inside the brain, light Elon Musk’s neuralink is doing, and some other researchers. But this is so far possible only with patients who have trouble controlling their body and who need that surgery. So in short, there are currently limitations, but science develops quickly, and we should keep our eyes open.

Do you think it’s possible to fix addiction to technology by adding more/different technology?

As of today, there is no such technology that can fix addiction. When we consider from the neuroscientific perspective, addiction is caused by processes inside the brain. If you could manipulate those processes, you could change addiction. However, there is no way of precisely manipulating those processes inside the human brain and there won’t be in the next decades, as it’s very complicated.

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The interview was conducted in Tallinn, Estonia in November 2022.

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