A developmental basis to seeking and acquiring objects?

Materialism and consumerism are often thought of as the results of external, societal factors – they’re perhaps driven by the messages dispersed by the capitalist model in order to fuel itself, by advertising and media that create constant feelings of inadequacy and need and the desire to have all sorts of shiny, lovely things that promise to be totally fulfilling and totally make our lives that much better. But there’s another interesting factor to perhaps try to fit into the clunking, grinding cogs of whatever complex mechanisms do drive the lumbering behemoth of materialism/consumerism: what about internal, innate factors? Is there something about human brains that makes us place importance on material objects and that makes us seek them out?

There are probably a lot of theories out there about this sort of topic, the necessary emphasis being on the fact that they are theories – they’re usually not really hypotheses that are up for testing and validating, so they need to be taken with a grain of salt. But one theory I came across seemed to, at least to me, have a certain amount of face validity. It suggests that the reason so many of us are so keen on material objects, and on bringing them into our lives (usually courtesy of cash or a credit card), is perhaps the drive that made us explore and interact with our environments way back when we were babies.

Babies aren’t really good with concepts – you might have noticed that they tend to not learn about action and reaction, for instance, by reading books on Newtonian physics and contemplating Newton’s third law. They learn by throwing a building block and seeing it knock a teddy bear over, that sort of elegant thing. Not surprisingly, a healthy brain is going to encourage a young human to interact as much as possible with the environment, and that learning process presumably feels very rewarding. You can’t ask a baby how much he or she enjoyed pushing a pile of books and seeing it fall over, but the brain must be giving them a sensation that feels rewarding.

The fact is, back when you were an infant or a young child, objects were fascinating, amazing, informative, critical parts of your life and your development. They allowed you to learn about the environment and interact with it, to figure out what you could and couldn’t control and what impact you could have on your surroundings, to comprehend permanence and existence (like how things don’t cease to exist just because you personally can’t see them any more) and, ultimately, to figure out and understand the separation that exists between yourself and everything else. Objects at that age are key to a huge transformation of yourself, and you seek them out.

So is it possible, then, that the yearning adults feel to acquire objects is some sort of an echo of this early object-seeking behaviour? Do we keep seeking things out and buying things because we hope our brain will give us that incredibly rewarding buzz in return for interacting with something novel and interesting in our environment and transforming our understanding of our surroundings? As Ian Woodward says in his paper discussing this idea, “consuming things – or searching for them – becomes a search for a type of promise to be transformed by engagements with objects”. Perhaps we find enjoyment in being on the quest for such objects, because we anticipate their power to make a difference in our lives.

And it might seem ridiculous, but pretty much any item could be the one we think will change us and give us that sense of fulfillment. It’s not necessarily as noble as, for example, a potential photographer finally affording their first camera and being transformed by the discovery of their innate talent and passion for the medium. It’s more often like just some random everyday person expecting that their life will somehow be transformed if only they could buy that pair of shoes they really like but everywhere is out of stock in the right size. As Woodward says, “The irony here is of course that the most prosaic or mundane thing can be seen to promise transformation. The magical element of everyday consumption is that the most banal, emptied-out, seemingly trivial thing can be a most powerful container of cultural values and ideologies.”

The problem is that, unsurprisingly, no matter what we buy, we never really do get that amazing, insightful, transformative feeling back. It’s long gone because we comprehended the difference between self vs. other a long time ago.

This is all just a theory, and it can’t be empirically tested. Furthermore, there’s not necessarily any reason why the brain would retain the circuitry responsible for making you seek out novel objects, or would retain any memory of how rewarding that behaviour was, since the brain obviously undergoes a huge process of change and development from birth to adulthood and we do not retain a lot of the impulses and behavioural tendencies we had as infants. Indeed, the functioning of an infant brain is barely recognisable at many levels when compared to that of an adult one. But it’s interesting to consider whether innate object-seeking behaviours might persist and might have been co-opted by materialism and consumerism, rather than assuming that it’s society alone that gives us the impulse to seek and acquire objects.

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