Communicatrix writes today about her love of browsing:

“My first shrink-slash-astrologer warned me early on that I’m a floaty type.

“Which is to say, I enjoy wandering from thing to thing, but this can leave me very, very ungrounded.  … I know that looking at things soothes me and I suspect that having one reason I tend to collect them is that having them around grounds me.

“Looking through new-to-me stuff—almost any stuff, from garage sales to flea markets to high-end department stores—is weirdly relaxing and comforting. When I’m browsing the stacks or the back 40 at the Kane County Flea Market or the racks at Bloomie’s, a part of my brain that usually won’t shut up is finally able to, but I also feel deeply cared for.”

I found her comments really interesting because my reaction to browsing is also intense, and it feels quite different.

I do like to “wander from thing to thing” in the sense of not really focusing on one task for too long before I do another task. When I read I wander or surf between 5 or 6 books or articles at a time. When I eat, I graze. When I travel, I browse, I flit, I nosh the sights. Wandering, I get. What doesn’t calm me is browsing things, especially (but not limited to) things that are meant to be bought.

For me, with one major exception and one qualified exception, looking through new-to-me stuff — whether in department stores, boutiques, gift shops, antiques and flea markets, Goodwill, garage sales (especially!), garden centers and nurseries, hardware stores, clothing stores, art galleries, science and history museums, and so on — is not relaxing and it’s not comforting. It doesn’t make me feel cared for.

On the contrary.  Browsing feels cluttery, a busy too-muchness in my head, just like having too much stuff in my house does.  It feels vastly tiring and taxing of energy. It feels very demanding.

The major exception is public gardens.  Strolling through gardens and absorbing the plants’ sensual qualities, the water features, an expanse of lawn, the array of colours, is deeply relaxing for me.

The qualified exception is what gives me more clues about my browsing fatigue:  Sometimes, grocery browsing can be relaxing for me, depending on the store, my mood, time pressures, the state of the finances, etc. Sometimes, I feel almost hypnotised looking at all the cheeses, the lovely colours and shapes of produce, the plethora of microbrews — but inevitably, I soon notice I’m feeling stressed, pressured, and demanded … to make choices. Even though the choices don’t really matter (buy an artichoke or don’t), they feel taxing.

And according to neuroscience, it is taxing to make and/or consider choices, or to feel one needs to:

“There are two systems for making decisions in the brain: deliberative and emotional. Deliberative systems, also referred to as calculation areas, utilize parts of the brain related to mathematics and rational decisions. Emotional systems utilize older, more primal parts of the brain. …

“Individual behavior is affected by attitudes about payoffs, such as gains and losses, in addition to beliefs about outcomes, such as risk and ambiguity.”

The executive function of the brain has a lot to manage and weigh every time we enter the decision-making process:  “It’s long been recognized that strenuous cognitive tasks … can make it harder to focus later on. But recent results suggests that these taxing mental activities may be much broader in scope — and may even involve the very common activity of making choices itself.” (from SciAm, June 2008)

Do those who feel soothed by browsing not make decisions when browsing (I would like that in my house, I prefer this to that, I wouldn’t want to buy that, etc)? Are in they some place of suspended judgment and processing? Or do they make decisions and rehearse choices, but somehow that process itself calms them, perhaps by subduing other sorts of brain functioning that produces more anxiety or stimulation (as Communicatrix suggests about herself)?

Communicatrix listed some useful strategies to keep her from acquiring too many of these things, which she might otherwise buy because looking at them pleases her brain.

My strategies are mostly avoidance moves:

  • I limit my time browsing things as much as possible, because I know the kind of brain overload (sometimes even despair – truly!) I’ll feel within minutes.
  • If I have to shop for something, I try to do it online, where I can choose how many items to view.
  • Failing that, I shop small stores with limited choices.
  • I almost never shop with another woman, because they tend to linger.
  • Goodwill requires a strategy of its own, because to find items that I want, I have to look through a lot of racks of clothing. Because our closest Goodwill is an hour away, I go about once every two months, and I try not to schedule other browsing for the same day. That’s not always possible and so I am often dog-tired after this excursion. But I think the deals are worth it. (I don’t feel like that about any other store.)
  • I avoid antiques stores, flea markets, and garage sales like the plague. My husband enjoys these, and I like a bargain, too, so sometimes I go, but it’s not pleasant.
  • I don’t go to box stores like Target, Wal-Mart, Costco, or most department stores, at all.  If I need furniture, I go to a furniture showroom or sometimes a Penneys or similar, but it’s a targeted mission to look, decide, and get out of there.  We bought our sectional last week via Craigslist.
  • I avoid art galleries and most other museums.
  • If I go to a museum or gallery, I try to go alone so I can browse at my own spare pace.
  • At museums, I spend a lot of time in front of one piece or one display, focusing my attention narrowly and not comparatively or along an array of items. (Rothko is great for calming the mind without boring it.)

Tulips and foxglove, Longwood Gardens, May 2007


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