The internet is rewiring my brain
Recently, I’ve been distracted. I’m working on a design, then suddenly realise I’ve spent ten minutes reading a website about cheese that I Googled after laughing at a goat meme on Tumblr, linked from Facebook, accessed via a link from Twitter that someone has emailed me. This distraction is a recent phenomenon and it’s starting to scare me. I’m beginning to worry that long term exposure to the internet is reducing my ability to concentrate. The internet is rewiring my brain.
I never used to be like this
Up until about a year ago I was a dedicated, freelance designer. I would regularly pull eight-hour stints at my computer, surfacing occasionally to upload a sandwich or flick through a book for inspiration. I would shut the door at the end of the day, switch my phone to voicemail and pick up again the following morning.
Work hasn’t changed – it’s still just as creative, challenging and rewarding. What has changed is that I never let go. When I leave my desk I reach for my phone. I spend the evening on the iPad. I go to bed reading tweets and wake up reading emails. This constant exposure to electronic stimuli seems to be taking its toll on my brain. Somewhere along the line I have swapped deep thought for flimsy distractions. I exist inside the Twitter feed of a needy teenager.
It’s not just me
I got scared so I started to read. I came by this book by Nicholas Carr ‘The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember’. Carr believes that constant exposure to fast data streams is changing the way our brains are wired. His theories resonated with me.
Human intelligence relies on our ability to transfer information from our short term or ‘working’ memory to long term memory – our brain’s filing system. When information and experiences enter our long term memory, we are capable of complex ideas and thoughts. Our mind draws on other memories to build connections and it’s this deep thinking that leads to true creativity.
The problem is, working memory can only hold a small amount of information at a time. With the distraction of a tweet or an email the thought is lost and never makes it to the filing system. In the blink of a LOL Cat that brilliant idea is forgotten.
See what I did there. I bet you can’t even remember what you are reading about. Was it something about cheese? Goats?
Carr also believes that the internet overwhelms the brain, which can have detrimental effects to long-term memory. The immediacy and full-on nature of the web leads to cognitive overload which makes it difficult to remember anything.
Wired magazine presented similar views in its June 2010 issue:
“When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain.”
The Wired article states that there is nothing inherently wrong with quickly skimming the headlines – we’ve been reading newspapers and magazines this way for years. The problem occurs when skimming becomes our dominant mode. The plasticity of our brains means we quickly set this as the default; our capacity to absorb and retain what we read is reduced.
This is me. I am a serial skimmer. An amoeba, adrift in the shallows of initial blurbs, pull quotes and bullet points.
Sorry to interrupt
Aside from client meetings and the odd collaboration, I tend to work alone. Just me, my mac, my books, my delusions of being a grown up. The sad truth is that I like being interrupted because each interruption brings me information from the outside world.
I feel connected. I am delighted by the Instagram of your lunch. I am entertained by the email flaming your boss. I crave the immediacy of knowing, despite the shallow and fleeting superficiality.
Pulling the ripcord
I was inspired by this account from Paul Miller, detailing his year without the internet. Miller lost weight, read Greek plays, travelled and went on bike rides. Hell, the man even cried during Les Mis. I felt desperately jealous. To be honest, mainly of his age (26) and the circumstances which allowed him the luxury of giving up the net.
For me, giving up the internet just isn’t an option. I am a web designer. I have a mortgage. I have two children addicted to Minecraft. The music in our house is powered by the internet. Without online shopping my family would starve, or at least go without Babybels. Is there any hope for my hippocampus?
Joined up thinking
This short foray into my mind has been a wakeup call. It’s time to change the way I use the internet. Set aside specific times for reading and replying to emails. Turn off the Twitter widget that shows new interactions. Stop checking my phone. No one will notice if I take an extra half hour to reply to a message or a tweet but with luck my brain might thank me in the long term.
I need to nourish my brain’s filing system with good quality, well connected thoughts. Farewell to the superficial, fast food of short term pleasures!
It’s time to close up the iPad for the evening and get out the Twister.