Over break I read two very good (very different) books, but one in particular reaffirmed one of my greatest fears.
The Internet is killing my brain. And it won’t stop.
Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows was one of those, “Wait, other people are feeling this too?” books, but I’m still not entirely sure that makes me feel any better.
Over the last six months especially, I’ve been feeling a change in the way I think. My thoughts seem more scattered and my ability to focus is noticeably weaker. Instead of actually reading emails or articles (or books), my attention span has been reduced to the size of a tweet or a text. I skip across the surface of web page after web page and sometimes can’t even tell you what I’ve just read.
Apparently I’m not alone. In his book, Carr reaches way back into the history of transformative technologies and neuroscience (think Gutenberg and the printing press) to explain how changing technologies have always had an effect on the way people think. And not just as a matter of changing thought patterns — he’s talking about physically altering the way the neurons in our head communicate.
As people learn new things, the brain’s neurons physically adapt to the new task by changing the way they’re “wired.” It’s called neuroplasticity, and it’s the idea that’s killing the once steadfast notion that the make up adult brain is set in stone. It’s also how the Internet may not so slowly be killing the way we think.
Learning to navigate the web’s inordinate amount of information and constant distractions means learning to handle copious amounts of stimuli (Carr goes through an undeniably accurate 30 seconds on a computer that includes the ding of a new email, a flood of new tweets, a chat notification, on and on). Information overload requires us to multitask, that’s not news. But understanding how always skittering across the surface of all of this information changes the way our different types of memory function could be essential to understanding the Internet’s influence (good or bad) on the way we think.
In an article in New York Magazine in 2009, “In Defense of Distraction,” Sam Anderson argues that the changes to our way of thinking are making us smarter in some ways but that multitasking just isn’t a viable solution to the info-overload. Instead, Anderson talked to Winifred Gallagher, author of Rapt, about attention as a tool that can be practiced and wielded against the constant distractions the web insists on throwing at us. Anderson says:
For Gallagher, everything comes down to that one big choice: investing your attention wisely or not. The jackhammers (distractions) are everywhere—iPhones, e-mail, cancer—and Western culture’s attentional crisis is mainly a widespread failure to ignore them.
Instead of chalking up our lack of attention and deep thinking to changes the Internet is forcing on our brains, perhaps being successful in the new media world is really more about willpower and making responsible attention choices.
Even sitting here writing this long post I’m feeling the effects of a shorter, weaker attention span. I can’t write more than 75 or 100 words without having to look up at something else, check my phone or get up and walk around.
So this year I’m making an effort to be more aware of my focus. No more lifehacks or self-help articles. I’m going to sit down and focus. I’ll just do it, using good ol’ willpower if I must.
It’s not that I feel less intelligent with my new way of absorbing as much content as possible, but I don’t think I’m ready to let go of the “deep reading” that inspired me to become a writer in the first place. I think there’s a place for both mindsets in this new landscape and I’m investing my focus in the search for the perfect balance.