If you are like most internet users, you are already looking to scan this essay. If we wrote it to fit the way your brain is being rewired by today's technology, we would use the F-pattern—a website classic—which features two lines of text followed by a list on the left:
Studies indicate that our growing use of interactive technologies makes us LESS able to
Read The Shallows
by Nicholas Carr.
By inserting the link above, convenient as it may seem, we are actually decreasing your comprehension. The more links we sprinkle in, the less you will understand and recall. This is because each time our brain comes across a link it has to do a little computation about whether to link now, later, or not at all. This takes a tiny, but significant bit of energy and draws our focus away from the content we are reading. Voila! We have disrupted the mental process we need to comprehend and remember.
But that's not all. If you stop right here and go right onto your next task—like reading the next e-mail—you will likely remember almost nothing. This is because the mechanism for taking in new information and moving it from your working memory into short term memory and then into long term memory requires some time and effort. If we don't talk, write or think about what we read, we will lose the information as the next wave of data fills up our working memory. Our working memory is not large—Carr describes it as thimble-sized—which means we are basically trying to bail a tsunami of texting, e-mail, and internet scanning with, well, a thimble.
The way we think has shifted in subtle yet profound ways with the introduction of each new technology—from the map and the clock to the printing press and now the computer. It was writing, specifically the mass-produced book, which eventually led us to develop more complex and reflective thought processes; for the first time we could snuggle up with information and ideas beyond our personal experience and luxuriate in the time required to ponder them at length. In so doing our thoughts became richer and more multifaceted, and our minds became the robust SAT-taking, rocket science-making, 500 page novel-writing phenomenon we have come to know and, until recently, depend upon.
If all this short attention span technology seems addictive to you, it is. It turns out our brains love diversion. Actually we are wired to see the anomaly in the field: the tiger in the grass (danger!), the berry on the bush (food!), the smile or grimace on a face (friend! foe!). Carr candidly describes the lengths he had to go to mentally retrain himself to concentrate for the periods necessary to write The Shallows. He found he had to significantly disconnect from technology, severely rationing his cell phone and internet use, an irony not lost on him at all!
While we believe we have a choice about how we use these technologies personally and as a culture, history and current science indicate otherwise. With the introduction of each technology, the world and our perception of it shifts, often profoundly, and we adapt. Think wheel. Think agriculture. Think car. Now think computer.
What's a slow loving person to do? Personally we are pretty low tech with just two lap tops and one dumb cell phone between us. Yet even we have been amazed at the impact being connected has had on how we think and the quality of our time. We first took a conscious break from our computers for 48 hours during National Unplug Day and were impressed by how much we enjoyed it. Recently we spent six days unplugged and noticed how the world came into sharper focus as our various senses came back online (to borrow a metaphor). Over that time we found we could see more, hear more, smell more, and taste more. Our minds became quieter. We slept better too.
Maintaining this mindfulness feels like a practice, not unlike working out and eating well. While we rely on our car, we make a point to walk and bike as well to avoid the unhealthy consequences of complete auto dependence. So too it is with our interactive technology. The good news is that there are many pleasures to be had by unplugging like reading a book, talking with a friend, playing music, thinking, napping, and yes, dreaming.
Spend time reading a book—yes, a real book made from paper. We recommend the following as life enhancing:
Create at least one and ideally three hours of continuously unplugged time every day (yes—every day!) Use this time to be with people (phones off!), read, write, work on something in the real world, or think. Try this for at least one week. What do you notice?
Oh, and maybe take a moment to reflect on what you read here. Let it soak in. What will you take away, or share?
Wishing you time to live and think deeply,
Beth and Eric
This monthly slow essay is from Beth Meredith & Eric Storm of Create The Good Life.
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