Efi Chalikopoulou in Vox:
The smooth, plastic egg fits in your palm. Brightly colored shell. Gray screen the size of a postage stamp. Below that, three buttons. Pull a thin plastic tab on the side, and the screen lights up. An 8-bit egg appears onscreen. It quivers and rolls and shakes until, finally, your Tamagotchi is born. Inside your head, the squishy, enigmatic organ known as the brain begins firing — not only to process the visual and sensory stimuli, but to generate curiosity in this new object. In fact, the spark of this fixation likely began before you even held this toy, when you heard friends feverishly speak about it and saw it in the clutches of popular kids at school.
Obsession is more than a cultural phenomenon — it’s part of our brain chemistry, and part of what it means to be human. For hundreds of thousands of years, we evolved in environments of scarcity, where social structures were required for survival, and seeking and curiosity were imperative. In the modern era, the same brain chemistry that lured us to the sweetness of fruit and alerted us to the presence of danger now draws us to fads like the Tamagotchi.
“People are born stupid,” says Paul Silvia, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina Greensboro and author of Exploring the Psychology of Interest. Many newborn animals already have instincts about their environment and quickly gain mobility. Sea turtles, for example, emerge from eggs ready to seek the sea. Human babies, meanwhile, are notably helpless. “We can’t really move, we can’t feed ourselves, we don’t have a lot of innate behaviors,” Silvia says. “But there’s an epic learning period that happens. You can be born knowing how to take care of yourself, or you could be born knowing how to learn.” That’s where interest comes in.