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The Internet is Rewiring Our Brains

Mentally, we’re in perpetual locomotion. -Nicholas Carr

WALL-E, the 2008 animated film, takes us inside a spaceship filled with the last of earth’s inhabitants whom have morphed into obese, dimwitted, and lazy Internet addicts. All of mankind has turned completely immobile as they spend every waking moment glued to a multimedia digital display while strapped into futuristic hovering lounge chairs.

WALL-E accidentally bumps into a hoverchair throwing a lady out of her seat causing the digital display to shut down temporarily. As the plump woman is abruptly plucked from her digital fantasyland, she becomes completely discombobulated and yet mesmerized at the same time. For a few seconds she’s in awe as she realizes there’s a forgotten world that exists outside of her digital universe. A world that is beautiful and palpable. However once the system comes back online, she’s sucked back into her frenzied digital universe and the world around her ceases to exist.

Maybe you’ve witnessed this stupor when tapping your ten year old’s shoulder, interrupting his Call of Duty marathon session or it happened walking past a co-worker you said hello to in the hallway who had her head cocked downward at a permanent 45 degree angle relentlessly scrolling through a never ending social media feed on her iPhone.

One thing is for certain: we are more distracted by technology than ever before and it’s drastically affecting our levels of creativity and productivity.

Not only is the Web changing how we read, it’s also changing the way we think and process memories and information. We are losing the ability to relax our minds and to focus and think deeply. Our creative genius tends to peak when our minds are in a relaxed, distraction-free state.

We are becoming addicted to the happy dopamine kick that rewards us each time the text message alarm sounds; each time we catch that quirky looking Pokemon character; each time we are “liked;” each time we add those cute little dog ears to the top of our heads; each time we scroll through the hundreds of Facebook feeds of “friends.”

That tiny little device sitting next to you acts as a voice inside of your brain that is constantly calling out. It’s chucking virtual snowballs at your head begging for attention. Our mobile phones give us a reason to procrastinate, a reason to stop any current activity we are working on to escape into the Web. Never before has such a technological distraction been so prevalent in our everyday lives.

Not convinced? Take the quick digital distraction test offered by The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction. I’m convinced most of us are digitally distracted at some level and in need of a digital detox.

Even when I put my phone away to get things done, I still have this feeling that something is tugging at the back of my brain trying to pull me away from the task at hand. I feel it most when I’m reading or writing.

Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, feels it too:

Over the last few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuity, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I”m not thinking the way I used to think. I feel it most strongly when I’m reading.

The brain is changing and adapting in response to our digital habits

Carr’s The Shallows was published in 2011 and was one of the first books to provide a strong argument backed by scientific evidence and research on how the Internet is rewiring our brains.

Carr writes:

One thing is very clear: if, knowing what we know today about the brain’s plasticity, you were to set out to invent a medium that would rewire our mental circuits as quickly and thoroughly as possible, you would probably end up designing something that looks and works a lot like the Internet. It’s not just that we tend to use the Net regularly, even obsessively. It’s that the Net delivers precisely the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli—repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive—that have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions. With the exception of alphabets and number systems, the Net may well be the single most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use.

Carr references Gary Small, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA who studies the physiological and neurological effects of the use of digital media. Small concludes:

The current explosion of digital technology not only is changing the way we live and communicate, but is rapidly and profoundly altering our brains.

According to Small, research suggests that certain neural pathways are being strengthened while others are being weakened. The strengthened pathways are associated with our multitasking and scanning abilities derived from our constant clicking through a myriad of hyperlinks on the Web while being able to hold a conversation, text, and instant message at the same time. What seems to be weakening are the pathways associated with deep reading and thinking along with sustained concentration and focus.

Carr adds:

Psychological research long ago proved what most of us know from experience: frequent interruptions scatter our thoughts, weaken our memory, and make us tense and anxious. The more complex train of thought we’re involved in, the greater the impairment the distractions cause.

It may be time for a digital detox

Carr’s argument is a compelling one due to the fact that he personally struggled to write The Shallows while fighting off the very same mind-altering digital distractions he so eloquently details in the book itself. To combat the distractions, Carr left the city of Boston for the mountains of Colorado. When he writes, he completely removes himself from social media and shuts down his cell phone. It wasn’t easy at first for Carr to unplug from his digital world and it took quite a bit of effort to get to a place of stillness. Once Carr found his peaceful place, he describes it as a moment of serenity:

But in the time the cravings subsided, and I found myself able to type at my keyboard for hours on end or read through a dense academic paper without my mind wandering. Some old, disused neural circuits were springing back to life it seemed, and some of the newer, Web-wired ones were quieting down. I started to feel generally calmer and more in control of my thoughts—less like a lab rat pressing a lever and more like, well, a human being. My brain could breathe again.

Carr explains that there needs to be a method of digital detox that encompasses a retreat to a quiet place surrounded by nature in order to maintain a high level of attentiveness, memory, and cognition. He explains:

A series of psychological studies over the past twenty years 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. The reason, according to attention restoration theory or ART, is that 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.

From the beginning of time it’s no secret that some of the most prominent figures of the world practice their own isolation techniques freeing themselves from distractions. Michel de Montaigne, the great philosopher of the 16th century, isolated himself inside his own castle library in order to focus on his craft. Both Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg were known to retreat to India in search of ideas and clarity that helped shape the visions of their respected companies. Voltaire preferred to work alone in his bed. Bill Gates takes an introspective sabbatical two times a year for what he refers to as “Think Week” at his quaint lakeside cottage.

Although it sounds simple in nature, it can be incredibly difficult to shut down in today’s ever connected world. Digital distractions run rampant. Those who are able to control and filter the digital noise along with manipulating their environment for sustained concentration will be the most creative and productive than those who do not.

In the words of my older brother every time I whip out my phone in front of him:

Sometimes you just gotta unplug man.”

Photo by Susan Sermoneta

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