Irresistible Novelties: The Allure Of The 'New'
Understanding Our Need for Novelty and Change
by Winifred Gallagher
Hardcover, 259 pages purchase
Science & Health
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Winifred Gallagher, a science writer, journalist and former psychology editor of American Health, has published, among other things, a unified theory of attention span, a researched chronicle of her own "neoagnosticism," an investigation into the nature of identity, and a cultural history of the handbag. Rearrange the Library of Congress subject headings produced by Gallagher's bibliography, and you could generate a pretty convincing parody of The New York Times' daily Most-Emailed list.
Her latest subject, therefore, comes as no surprise. In New: Understanding Our Need for Novelty and Change, Gallagher offers a study of neophilia, or "affinity for novelty," which, as she states early on, we are "biologically as well as psychologically primed to engage with."
Readers of popular science — a journalistic domain now mired in evolutionary psychology and diagrams of lit-up brains — will be relieved to learn that their unquenchable thirst for lowbrow dopamine squirts (new tweets about Kardashian annulments, Angry Bird high scores) isn't only a symptom of self-discipline on the fritz. Our diverted focus is, in fact, really just an evolutionary predisposition in overdrive. Our natural neophilia is in place "to help us adapt to, learn about, and create the new things that matter, while dismissing the rest as distractions," Gallagher writes. Though the stakes are lower than ever before (we need not filter out herds of gazelle in order to better focus on prides of lions), survival in our modern world still demands sensitivity to new things. It's our success that requires maybe even more economical attention to them.
To illustrate this spectrum of survival and success, Gallagher opens New with an extended hypothetical anecdote. She gives us a tour of an airplane stuck on the tarmac. The jet is packed with passengers who have all just learned that takeoff has been delayed. Gallagher speculates about different travelers' response to the news and how they handle the hassle. Some take the opportunity to get work done, others grow vexed and squander the time playing cellphone games. The 747 contains human specimens of extreme neophilia and extreme neophobia, along with those travelers who fall between the two poles — these are the ones who fare the inconvenience best of all.
Though Gallagher's lead is generously paced and appealingly chatty, it immediately places New in the more boring of the two already specious categories of Big Idea books. There are the Malcolm Gladwell-inspired, Slate-championed Big Idea books that insist upon counterintuitive positions, and the Big Idea books like Gallagher's, which call for moderate behavior.