Why it Pays to be Distracted

Quite often, it takes me hours to settle into writing a fairly straight forward piece for The Daily Banter. A blog post like this one should take 15 minute at the most, but I often find myself distracted by the dozens of other articles I have open on my web browser. This post actually started out as something else until I got distracted and read this fascinating BBC piece on why humans are so curious and get distracted all the time….

The crux:

The roots of our peculiar curiosity can be linked to a trait of the human species call neoteny. This is a term from evolutionary theory that means the “retention of juvenile characteristics”. It means that as a species we are more child-like than other mammals. Being relatively hairless is one physical example. A large brain relative to body size is another. Our lifelong curiosity and playfulness is a behavioural characteristic of neoteny.

Apparently, this curiosity and desire to explore have tangible long term benefits that are not immediately evident, as proven by mathematical algorithms:

In the world of artificial intelligence, computer scientists have explored how behaviour evolves when guided by different learning algorithms. An important result is that even the best learning algorithms fall down if they are not encouraged to explore a little. Without a little something to distract them from what they should be doing, these algorithms get stuck in a rut, relying on the same responses time and time again.

Computer scientists have learnt to adjust how these algorithms rate different possible actions with an ‘exploration bonus’ – that is, a reward just for trying something new. Weighted like this, the algorithms then occasionally leave the beaten track to explore. These exploratory actions cost them some opportunities, but leave them better off in the long run because they’ve gain knowledge about what they might do, even if it didn’t benefit them immediately.

The implication for the evolution of our own brain is clear. Curiosity is nature’s built-in exploration bonus. We’re evolved to leave the beaten track, to try things out, to get distracted and generally look like we’re wasting time. Maybe we are wasting time today, but the learning algorithms in our brain know that something we learnt by chance today will come in useful tomorrow.

The conclusion? It pays to be distracted – thank God.

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