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This is your brain on obsession

What the tiny Tamagotchi can teach us all

An illustration of two halves of a pink brain with a small Tamagotchi character in the middle. Efi Chalikopoulou for Vox

Part of the Fads Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

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.

Humans developed both the capacity for immense learning and a reward system that pushes us to seek out new things. In our brains, that reward cycle originates largely with dopamine, a neurotransmitter. Though dopamine-releasing neurons constitute fewer than 1 percent of the brain’s neurons, they’re incredibly powerful. Dopamine is linked to our motivation and reward cycles and, thus, implicated in everything from love and lust to addiction and our habits as consumers.

Here’s how it works at the simplest level: Nearly all dopamine cells originate from the midbrain. We experience pleasure thanks to a nerve tract that runs between a cluster of neurons known as the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and another part of the brain known as the nucleus accumbens. The VTA communicates with the nucleus accumbens to respond to rewards, releasing dopamine, which leaves its neuron of origin, passes through synapses, and then zaps receptors on the other end. That action produces feelings of gratification, letting the brain know that what’s occurring is beneficial — perhaps even bound to survival. This activity also primes the brain to remember the pleasurable event by strengthening the synapses in the hippocampus, the brain’s learning center.

Though dopamine was once thought only to be involved only in the hedonistic reward system of our brains, “Over time, neuroscientists have come to understand that it may be even more important to the motivation that drives us to get the reward,” says Dr. Anna Lembke, a Stanford University psychiatrist and author of Dopamine Nation.

In a classic experiment conducted at the University of Michigan in 1998, scientists engineered rats that didn’t produce dopamine. “What they found was that when they put food in the rat’s mouth, the animal seemed to experience pleasure,” Lembke says. “But when they placed food just a small distance away, the rat would starve to death, not being motivated to get up to go seek out the food.”

In sum, dopamine pushes us to pursue, then allows us to enjoy the bounty of what’s found. In primitive times, that helped humans discover their environment, innovate, and find new resources. Then came modernity, and with it a surplus of goods combined with the development of products designed to capture our attention.

Enter the Tamagotchi.

It’s 1997. Colorful Tamagotchi eggs sway from backpacks. Ride slung on belt loops. Dangle from fingers like yo-yos. It’s the kind of toy that is nowhere until, suddenly, it’s everywhere.

The concept of the Tamagotchi is straightforward. The device houses a tiny digital pet with basic needs for food, play, discipline, hygiene, and, on occasion, medical intervention. You check in on your Tamagotchi throughout the day — though it beeps if it requires immediate attention — and use the simple buttons to interact with it. Fail to care for it, and it dies, requiring a restart with a new pet to continue.

The Tamagotchi becomes a schoolyard status symbol. Woe to the parent who accidentally buys a GigaPet for their child. It is not the same. In fact, such dupes only reveal how hard you’re trying to fit in.

How did an unassuming, $15 toy capture the attention of millions?

Created by Japanese toymaker Bandai, Tamagotchi became a smash hit when it was released in Japan in 1996, selling millions of units in less than a year. The international buzz about the toys made for an effective hook. In 1997, Tamagotchi arrived in US toy stores, and kids lined up outside FAO Schwarz to buy them — the store sold 30,000 units in the first three days. Bandai made more than $160 million from Tamagotchi in the US that year.

Fads have an element of mystery. Some, like the Pet Rock, become almost as famous for their absurdity as they do for their popularity. “It tends to be kind of lightning in a bottle,” says Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. If it were possible to identify exactly what sparks trends, such products could be precisely engineered to succeed. Still, some commonalities do emerge.

Our brains are tuned to pick up newness. “That’s a cornerstone of what interest is all about,” Silvia says. “How people respond to things that are new, different, unfamiliar, and unexpected.” In long-ago times, this vigilance and attention to change in our environment kept us alive.

While Game Boys were popular for video games on the go, nothing else replicated the precise experience of a Tamagotchi. The toy was ever-present in a way others weren’t — it was created with a built-in keychain so it could be literally attached to the player, and keeping the digital pet alive required constant gameplay. It also marked the advent of digital pets, which would continue to be popular in later years with the introduction of the online Neopets game, the AIBO robotic dog, and others.

To go one step deeper, an object or product becomes increasingly fascinating if it’s constantly changing — basically, if it renews that sense of novelty.

In the 1950s, psychologist B.F. Skinner researched the power of variable schedules of rewards. In a lab experiment, an animal might be given a food reward randomly. Perhaps the animal presses a button and, the first time, it immediately dispenses a treat. The next time, it takes 10 taps before that reward is doled out. That kind of irregularity creates more interest than when the reward is delivered on a set, unchanging schedule.

Humans are similarly drawn to this erratic structure. Unexpected rewards result in a greater rush of dopamine. That’s because variability is involved with higher learning — if we’re able to correctly predict a reward, it’s not as interesting to our brains. But if it’s surprising? Now that’s something worth remembering. That’s part of the reason we’re drawn to fads at all. “Knowing what trends or styles are hip has an element of variability almost like a slot machine,” Eyal says.

A Tamagotchi changes and adapts depending on gameplay. The digital pet trills for attention. You learn how to interact with it. When you check in on your device, there may be any number of steaming little piles of turds for you to clean up. And then — miraculously, as all life is — you check your Tamagotchi one day to find that your pet has grown.

A person looks at a Tamagotchi game in their hand with an open-mouthed expression. They have a Tamagotchi character on his shoulder and an egg carton filled with Tamagotchi games in front of them.

Countless toys stare out from the shelves of stores across the country. But the Tamagotchi isn’t just a cool-looking object, nor is it merely an entertaining game. It’s a symbol of belonging, as were Tickle Me Elmo and Beanie Babies before it. “The thing itself is almost immaterial,” Lembke says. That’s why the GigaPet — a nearly identical toy, in theory — doesn’t cut it. The name-brand Tamagotchi transmits taste, indicating that you know what’s cool and interesting. “That becomes very powerful,” Eyal says.

Lembke describes trend-following as akin to the behavior of a flock of birds: No sooner has one bird startled and raised its wings than all the birds around it are in flight. “Humans are wired to know, see, and be aware of what our near neighbors are doing,” she says.

This is amplified in childhood. “Fads spread like wildfire through K-12 schools,” Silvia says. “Some people are into it, then everyone’s into it, and then you have to be into it or else you’ll be a loser.”

This kind of emotionally driven behavior may be because the lateral prefrontal cortex, the self-regulation part of the brain, matures slowly. Moreover, from an evolutionary perspective, adolescence is the time when people prepare to leave their families and create their own lives. Children are seeking their place. Consider the hierarchy of the playground, with its “in” groups and “out” groups. Kids play, bully, and suss out who falls where in the pack. Money and class come into play, with expensive, branded goods becoming a divisive force regarding who can afford to adopt fads at all. The popular kids tend to latch onto trends early, influencing the rest of their peers to hop on board — or else suffer being an outcast. “What drives all human behavior, all motivation, is not the pursuit of pleasure, but the avoidance of pain,” Eyal says. “One of the worst pains we can experience is social isolation.”

Schools are a pressure cooker for our drive for connectedness and belonging, where children can closely watch what their peers are doing. Philosophical anthropologist René Girard coined the term “mimetic desire” as part of his larger theory of human relations, positing that we do not desire things independently, but rather based on what other people want. Eyal summarizes it as: “Monkey see, monkey do.”

It makes a lot of sense when you consider evolution. In a world of risk, it’s safest to follow what others do. Caveman A ate a speckled mushroom, got sick, and died. Caveman B, on the other hand, ate a small brown mushroom, lived to tell the tale, and reported that it tasted delicious. So it’s only logical to eat the second type of mushroom, not the first. This is trendspotting as a tool for survival.

In a modern world of abundance, humans still possess basic desires to sate our hunger and thirst, to seek shelter and warmth. But when it comes down to what we eat, what we drink, how we style our homes, and what clothes we wear, it’s often not enough for something to satisfy our base needs. We’re influenced by peers and innovators.

There’s a problem with Tamagotchi. The stakes are too high. Ignore the pets for too long — even five to six hours — and they might die. In fact, it’s not enough to merely keep it alive. Fail to care for your Tamagotchi properly, and it evolves into a selfish duck-billed creature as opposed to a well-balanced teddy bear. In 1997, Education World interviewed one exasperated assistant principal in Connecticut. “First we were overrun with Beanie Babies, then all of a sudden teachers started commenting that the kids seemed to be taking a lot of long bathroom breaks,” he said. As it turns out, kids were stealing off to care for their virtual pets.

Schools begin to ban Tamagotchis; rebellious kids sneak them into class regardless. Others ask their parents to babysit their digital pets at home.

The shrill cry of the Tamagotchi interrupts family dinner, homework, time with friends. You’re tethered to it — literally, by a keychain, and emotionally, as it depends on you for survival. You bond with this cute digital creature because it has the same characteristics as living animals — seeking our attention, holding grudges, and seeming to act independently. As Harvard computer science researcher Judith Donath wrote about our connection to Tamagotchi, “It is obsessive to leave a meeting or dinner because a game requires attention, but it is reasonable to do so if a pet is in need.”

Humans grow attached to things when there’s an investment. While the Tamagotchi may not cost much money (unless you pay for it with your own allowance, a hefty toll), it costs a whole lot in time. Sweeping away tiny, digital poops with the press of a button. Feeding it a sandwich, a slice of cake, or a piece of wrapped candy. Scolding it when it won’t eat. Checking its weight and age. Administering medicine when it’s sick.

The Tamagotchi requires devotion. And the sheer time required to keep it alive only further binds us to it.

Eyal points to commitment and consistency bias here, also known as the sunk-cost fallacy. This is a sociological concept which essentially says that the more we invest in something, the more likely we are to keep doing it. “Only an idiot would keep putting effort, time, and money into something that’s not valuable, so it must be valuable,” Eyal summarizes. “This circular logic keeps us doing what we always have done. To break the chain is very uncomfortable.”

But putting on this obsession as a personality — not just playing with the Tamagotchi, but becoming a Tamagotchi player — is also about identity. Adolescence is the time of brain pruning, says Lembke. Neurons become selected for those we use most and deselected for neural circuits we’re not using. “The ones we tend to use a lot are then heavily myelinated, this sort of way of adding insulation to the wiring so it works more efficiently,” Lembke says. Mental architecture is still in formation. “It’s a time of enormous plasticity in the brain.” Synapses evolve and change depending on how we interact with our environment. It becomes a stage when humans try on different personas and go through phases.

Plus, taking your Tamagotchi to school, to restaurants, or to the park is about fitting in and demonstrating that you’re a part of a community. When we make human connections, our systems for dopamine and oxytocin (the so-called “love hormone”) are activated. “It’s not really a surprise to learn that we feel pleasure when we make human connections,” Lembke says. “And we feel connected by doing the same thing at the same time, experiencing the same emotion at the same time, wearing the same thing at the same time, watching the same show at the same time.”

Egg, baby, child, teenager, adult: The Tamagotchi evolves quickly. Each day marks the passing of months or even years in the Tamagotchi world. You’re responsible, caring for your Tamagotchi diligently. But, within two weeks, your adult Tamagotchi grows needy. Tamagotchis require the most attention as newborns and as they approach the end of their life. Some may beep as frequently as every 5 minutes, demanding help. Their needs are a bottomless hole for attention. Your Tamagotchi’s health and happiness diminish. Then, due to sickness or old age or neglect, it sprouts wings and returns to its home planet. Your Tamagotchi has died. Cue the tears and the heartbreak.

(That anguish, by the way, is real. Online cemeteries pop up for mourners and, in one English town, children even lay their Tamagotchis to rest in real pet cemeteries. In fact, the psychological phenomenon for how humans form attachments to machines and AI was named for this emotional connection: the Tamagotchi effect.)

You restart with a new pet, but it’s not the same. Your first has died and, with it, that initial joy. It’s happening on a broader scale: Because Tamagotchis are now so common, the popular kids abandon them in search of the next cool thing. Your friends discard their eggs. Some of them become frustrated by their pet’s demands, smashing their eggs against the wall or on the ground, accidentally restarting their game.

Remember the seeking aspect of the dopamine reward cycle? That comes back into play here. When we try new things, a rush of dopamine floods the reward pathway, which makes us feel good and reinforces that pleasure. But our brain adapts. This inundation is followed by a dopamine deficit state, which makes us crave and seek. “It’s a craving that drives motivation,” Lembke says. “To restore baseline levels of homeostasis, or to get even higher.”

Our ancestors couldn’t remain in a blissed-out state. “If we did, we wouldn’t look for the next reward,” Lembke says. The brain processes pleasure quickly, tells us that we should get more of it, and has us move on to the next thing.

“Dopamine rewards experiencing something new,” Silvia says. Hobbies that tend to be long-lasting have a sense of infinite learning or a community around them that provides a social benefit, such as crafting or sports. “You could always get better, you could always learn something new,” Silvia says. “There’s a gravity always pulling people in deeper.”

Fads tend to be static. Pet Rocks and Cabbage Patch Kids didn’t get any better — they were what they were. Sure, maybe your Tamagotchi became more entertaining as you progressed through the first round of gameplay, or perhaps even as you improved your caretaking skills with your next pets, but eventually the thrill dissipated.

The Tamagotchi fades from the schoolyard, fades from memory. You put yours in a drawer and are free of its beeps and demands.

Yet toymakers learned from all this — what worked to get you obsessed and what eventually chased you off. Digital pets? Still hot. Though, perhaps, the toys don’t need to be quite as needy. And what would happen if that faux pet weren’t made of hard plastic but, rather, were as soft as a stuffed animal? Toymakers iterate.

By autumn 1998, there’s something new in stores capturing the collective imagination.

Enter the Furby.

Lexi Pandell is a writer from Oakland, California. Her nonfiction work has been published in the Atlantic, the New York Times, Wired, and elsewhere.

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