I want to start by picking up on the concept of numbing … you might remember I mentioned yesterday that when we extend certain “human powers”, we will necessarily limit others. (I used the example of binoculars — if you forget entirely, may I suggest you go back and read it again.) The computer is best described as a very “general” technology. What that means is that is can be used for almost anything. It can extend our sight, our hearing, our speech and many other things. I have often told people that a computer — or the Internet — can basically do anything you want to use it for. Chances are someone, somewhere has developed a program to do exactly what you are looking for.
So, if the computer extends so many of our human abilities, what does it numb? I believe it numbs (at least) two things:
1. Our mental abilities (we are teaching our brains to be indexes of where to find information rather than teaching them to learn).
2. Our emotional attachments.
Those may sound like bold statements and also fairly shocking, but I hope you’ll at least think about it.
The computer, especially since the invention of the Internet, has been shown to be the perfect medium to rapidly change and alter our brains due to repetitive, intensive, interactive and addictive actions. The computer changes us into its own image — and that image is a highly distracted image. Computer operating systems are all based on a concept popularly called “Windows” (yes, even Apple uses windows, in fact, they invented the concept). “Windows” are discreet portions of the computer screen that host programs running on the computer. This concept promotes multi-tasking (how crazy would it be to simply have one “window” open on your computer screen at a time?) — in essence using a computer, even without the Internet, is both teaching and reinforcing that your best work can be done by performing multiple tasks at the same time.
The problem is, our brains do not work this way.
Our brain cannot multitask. What it can do is switch very quickly back and forth between tasks, but it cannot do two things at the same time. Each time we switch between tasks, there is a mental “cost” involved in switching. Brain resources need to be allocated to switching and, that means, away from the tasks at hand. This means doing two things at once will always be less efficient than focusing on a single task. It takes effort for your brain to remind itself what it needs to do when it switches back and forth.
Once a computer (or similar device) is connected to the Internet, we are presented with so many competing tidbits of information that require “switching” back and forth that we are truly entering an environment that rewards skimming instead of reading and also rewards fast, distracted thinking. The use of the Internet literally results in constant distractions. “Social media” takes this distractedness a step further while simultaneously adding in the “benefit” of making our online activity social. This means our social standing is now affected by our use of the Internet — many people use Facebook as a primary way to communicate with friends and this means our interactions are being facilitated by a flickering screen. If we do not use the medium — or use it poorly — we believe our relationships may suffer.
What we find is that the Internet demands our attention, but does so only to scatter our brain into myriad directions without allowing us to pause and focus on a single subject for longer than a few minutes (statistics actually show that Canadians, on average, spend 20 seconds on a web page — 20 seconds!).
The Internet also feeds our need to be kept up-to-date with the latest information as opposed to the most important information. Studies show we “vastly overvalue what happens to us right now” even when we know “the new is more trivial than essential”*. We are thrown off in an endless cycle of links that promise more information despite the fact we never actually read more than a few seconds or dig deeply below the surface. As we are more distracted, we have a harder time distinguishing between things that are relevant and things that are not. We read, see, and hear a lot of information, but we are not able to determine what is important and what can be discarded — everything is treated equally and most of the information is either discarded or not connected to anything in our mind. People who multitask have been proven to be “suckers for irrelevancy”.
In very real ways, we are being overwhelmed with information and our brain is physically adapting to accommodate this change in our environment. It is creating a “path of least resistance” to enable us to skim a lot of information quickly, but that necessitates a “loss” elsewhere. As mentioned above, we are changing our brains to index where to find information quickly, but in no way are able to internalize even a small percentage of that information. Studies are showing that, over time, our brains are becoming more distracted and less able to learn complicated concepts, to retain information, and to think creatively. Our brains are changing to reward thinking that is fast and decisive rather than slow, creative and rational.
(It gets worse.)
We are losing our ability to create long-term memories. We have two types of memory; short-term, or working memory, and long-term memory. While our long-term memory is essentially infinite, our working memory can only hold approximately 2-4 elements at any given moment. If a new element is introduced before another can be transferred to long-term memory, it will simply be lost. Studies have also shown that time is required to transfer things from working memory to long-term memory — that time can be up to a few hours (and, as an interesting aside, this process is assisted by encounters with nature). And so, despite the infinite ability of our long-term memory, there is a bottle-neck between our working memory and the time it takes to transfer that information into long-term memory.
In his book, “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains”, Nicholas Carr compares the Internet to reading a book; “When we read a book, the information faucet provides a steady drip, which we can control by the pace of our reading. Through our single-minded concentration of the text, we can transfer all or most of the information, thimbleful by thimbleful, into long-term memory and forge rich associations … With the Net, we face many information faucets, all going full blast. Our little thimble overflows as we rush from one faucet to the next. We’re able to transfer only a small portion of the information to long-term memory, and what we do transfer is a jumble of drops from different faucets, not a continuous, coherent stream from one source.”
Essentially, what is happening is that we are inundating our brain with too much information and before we can store any of it to long-term memories, we are sent off in another direction to pursue new ideas and enjoy new things. While this makes us feel like we are learning, we are actually being spread thin and wide; we become “generalists” just like the computer in front of us. We may know a little about a lot, but we don’t know a lot about anything and can’t connect what we do know to other areas of our lives.
It turns out the Internet is not just a machine perfectly created to divide our attention and limit our ability to form long-term memories, it is also damaging to our ability to develop relationships.
Distraction results in a lack of attentiveness, which is what is required to both form memories and to experience what are known as the higher human emotions. These are the emotions involved in moral or relational contexts and include compassion, empathy and consideration of the needs of others — the very emotions needed to properly build relationships. In order to understand the minds of others, we need time to reflect. When things happen too quickly or when we are distracted, we do not fully experience these emotions and are able to think only of ourselves and how this – what is being said or done by another person – affects us.
In other words, our emotions become very shallow as well.
And so, in very real ways, my ability to concentrate, my inability to consider relationships above “right-ness” and my limited memory are all connected. My brain is literally being shaped and re-shaped due to the tools/technology/media I choose to use, and use, and use again throughout my daily routine. While I am sure there are other factors involved, it is important to recognize the very real affects of my Internet, computer and “social media” usage on the way my brain works.
I am teaching my brain to be distracted. This definitely applies to my time in front of the computer screen (which is most of my day), but because our brain is being physically changed by how we use it, this also applies to other aspects of life away from a screen. I am growing to expect information to be parcelled out in quick, efficient packets rather than in ways requiring sustained attentiveness.
The fact I am inundated with information without the proper time for reflection — especially via “social media” — means I am interacting with friends and family in ways that do not allow me to feel emotions such as compassion and empathy; I am only thinking of the “right-ness” of their statements and not trying to see things from their point of view. In addition, because my brain needs to process a lot of information quickly, it necessarily has to “numb” emotional attachment to any of these disparate pieces of information — I become emotionally alienated from others even as I am able to more readily connect with them.
Finally, because I am not providing adequate time to properly form long-term memories and connections between new information and the information already living in my head, my memory is very short. Distractions pop up immediately after conversations and the depth of what was said is lost. I may read an incredibly interesting article, but without the time needed to digest the information, it will remain “data” rather than intelligence.
Our computer age — especially combined with our prevalent Internet connectedness — is in very real ways numbing our mental capacity and alienating us from those closest to us. Very much like the binoculars, we are connecting more readily across space, but necessarily distancing ourselves from those immediately in front of us.
That may sound pessimistic (or hopeless), but of course it never is. The big question is … what can I do about it? How can I combat these changes in ways that don’t require me to completely disconnect?
(I’m going to think about that … tomorrow.)
* [Christopher Chabris]
Part 4 can be found here