Sunday, May 1, 2011

What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains

“What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” is the subtitle of The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. He describes research proving that spending a significant amount of time on the internet impairs the ability to concentrate, focus, and engage in deep thought. By deep thought, Carr means contemplative reflection or concentrated creative thought. He means the ability to engage in sustained reading, not just skimming or speed reading; but the kind of concentrated reading in which the reader engages with the book’s author, experiencing a rich exchange of ideas (what I like to call “dwelling in a book”).

The internet fills our brains with so much clutter and clatter that we have difficulty truly concentrating. Spending time on the internet actually physically rewires the brain to process information in a different way, making it more difficult to focus for sustained reading of books (either printed or on e-readers) and also negatively impacting memory. Carr is talking about time spent specifically on the internet, not time spent generally on the computer (engaged in writing, or reading from an e-reader or downloaded material without distracting embedded hyperlinks). He is talking about time spent clicking around, checking Facebook, tweeting on Twitter, checking email and instant messages, googling, shopping, weather, news, whatever. He is talking about texting and checking email on a cell phone. He is talking about the distracted, all-over-the-place, time-wasting business that can consume a surprisingly large amount of time.

I have taken his words to heart. A few months ago I started checking Facebook more and more frequently. I had the sense that if I didn’t keep up with Facebook, I was missing something important I might want to know about my children, my nieces and nephews, my friends (both those around the corner and those on the other side of the world), and family. After reading Carr’s book, I am determined to significantly reduce the time I spend on Facebook. It is a good tool for communicating in some ways, but enough is enough. In the past few months I have also developed a bad habit of checking the top news every hour or so. Instead of letting my mind pause and wander while I am writing, so that thoughts can come to me from that mysterious well of creative reverie, I have gotten into the bad habit of taking little breaks from writing to click around on the internet on news items, Facebook, google, etc. Useless noise.

It was when I noticed that I am having difficulty writing fiction for sustained periods of time that I became motivated to go on an internet diet. I’m working on it (weaned myself quite a bit this past week and was able to get more creative writing done). I am grateful that I have not lost my ability to focus for long periods of time on sustained reading, although I have talked to people who spend a lot of time on the internet who say they are having trouble “getting into” a book these days and don’t read books much anymore. Fortunately, Carr provides conclusive evidence of the ongoing plasticity of the human brain. You can literally change your mind. The changes that have taken place in how my brain fires its electrical impulses because of my use of the internet can be reversed. I can retrain my brain. And I intend to do so. If you notice that you are having difficulty spending time in sustained reading, trouble “getting into” books, I want to suggest that you consider spending less time on the internet.

A couple of weeks ago I took a walk behind Lake Mendocino with my friend Kirsti and her children. While we were walking, six-year-old Teniya asked me, “What do you daydream about?” I loved the question and was blown away that she asked it. I told her I daydream about a story I am writing. She said she daydreams about stories she wants to write too! And when we returned to the house, she sat down immediately to write one that she had described to me on our walk.

Carr discusses the need of the human brain for quiet contemplative thought for creativity, pondering deeper questions about life, building memory, and a host of other higher order mental processes (one of which, by the way, is empathy!). He suggests that not only should we humans get off the internet, but that we should go out for a walk in nature, like me and little Teniya. I’m going to excerpt from the final pages of The Shallows, because I can’t say any of this any better than Carr. Here is what he says (abridged version): “A series of psychological studies has revealed that after spending time in a quiet rural setting, close to nature, people exhibit greater attentiveness, stronger memory, and generally improved cognition. Their brains become both calmer and sharper. When people aren’t being bombarded by external stimuli, their brains can, in effect, relax. They no longer have to tax their working memories by processing a stream of bottom-up distractions. The resulting state of contemplativeness strengthens their ability to control their mind.”

Carr cites a fascinating study that was done by Marc Berman at the University of Michigan. Berman had a group of people take a series of mentally rigorous tests. Then he sent half of them out to walk in the woods in a secluded location for an hour and he sent the other half to walk on busy downtown streets for an hour. Both groups took the mentally rigorous tests again upon their return. The people who walked in the woods significantly improved their performance on the cognitive tests (indicating an increase in attentiveness); but those who walked in the city showed no improvement on the tests. Now, get this, even more interesting. They did the test again on a different group of people only this time they didn’t send anyone out to walk. They had one group look at pictures of nature scenes and had the other group look at pictures of busy urban scenes between times taking the rigorous mental tests. The people who looked at the nature scenes showed significant improvement the second time they took the test and the people who looked at busy urban scenes did not!

Carr goes on to say: “On the internet, there is no peaceful spot where contemplativeness can work its restorative magic. There is only the endless, mesmerizing buzz of the urban street. The stimulations of the Net, like those of the city, can be invigorating and inspiring. We wouldn’t want to give them up. But they are, as well, exhausting and distracting. They can easily overwhelm all quieter modes of thought.”

We need uninterrupted, uncluttered, quiet time to reflect, to allow our minds to wander, for optimum brain function, for memory, for our creativity, to find answers to some of life’s biggest questions, to imagine what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes, and for peace of mind. So imagine my friend Teniya asking, “What do you daydream about?” and then log off the internet, go for a walk in the woods, and think about what you would tell her.

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