Information is physical and how we use it changes our brains, and has impact on our attention. One UCLA study of internet use by Gary Small showed that five hours of internet search by novices was enough to make them develop a whole new brain circuit.
It’s not just the brain that grows and rebuilds on a vast and fast scale. According to researchers at Einstein Medical College, we essentially get a new heart in three days. The important point to remember is that our actions quickly change brain and body – what we do is what we become.. So what happens if we spend 8 or more hours a day dallying with the internet, video games, and cell phones?
It changes the brain. A lot.
When engaged in any task all the human brain really has is attention, our ability to be alert, focus, and respond. The surprise is that our brains actually do only one thing at a time. Multitasking is an oxymoron. To do more than one thing at a time, we must: tell parts of the brain to prepare to switch; look at different circuits in the cortex and get them to move synchronously; turn off the old activity; make the change. All that takes time.
And our attention only functions inside the shell of what cognitive psychologists call working memory, as Nicholas Carr describes in his excellent new book, “The Shallows.” It used to be thought working memory was capable of dealing with perhaps seven different objects at a time. Now the belief is we can simultaneously engage just 2 to 4 separate objects in working memory.
So what happens if there’s more? The system gets overwhelmed. We begin to foul up. Plus our ability to move events into long term memory, where we can retrieve them, contemplate them, manipulate and use them, in other words think, tends to go right out the window.
Right now we are trying to solve an enormous financial debt crisis. If Carr is right, we’re also going to face, especially with the young, a “brain debt” crisis. Long term memories are for many of us our brain’s “savings”– what we will depend on later in life to work and survive. We need such memories for learning, for pleasure, and for creative thinking. If we continue to continuously multitext through multimedia, we may have far less of such memories.
The new ways we use our brains also provoke hyperarousal, the nervous, keyed up feeling that comes from doing so many things at once. Too much arousal and you won’t think straight. You’ll also won’t be able to actively rest, quick processes that calm and sharpen the mind. Rest is important, rather like food – it’s how we rebuild our bodies and brains.
So if you’re frequently multitasking and surfing the net, your brain is buzzing. Ultimately that makes it harder to learn, to think, to create. To learn, you have to get stuff from working memory into long term memory. If you’re a kid with a perpetually buzzing brain, that process may fail. Without good long term memory and the thoughtful, deeper learning it creates, youngsters run the risk of spending their lives as flunkies, rather than getting the chance to become the boss.
When there’s too much to do not much gets done. Quick actions like web browsing or blasting video game aliens may improve hand eye coordination, but try doing homework at the same time. Many of us have come to live with broken attention as our daily norm.
We can see what broken attention does to us by looking at broken sleep. Take a perfect 19 year old sleeper. Wake her up for just a few seconds every 3 minutes. She will sleep 95% of the night, an excellent level of sleep efficiency that on its face might please most sleep doctors. Yet she’ll wake up in the morning telling you she’s exhausted, that she feels she never really slept all night. Broken attention does the same thing to learning.
Sustained Attention is Required for Sustained Achievement
Whether it’s writing a book report, graduating from Annapolis, or running a successful business, you need to sustain attention to get something valuable done. A lot of sustainable pleasure comes with such achievement, ut try telling that to young kids who think that disconnecting two days from social networking will leave them invisible to their friends. The life of broken attention ironically goes hand in hand with constant, continuous connection. As Carr points out, if you don’t update, you’ll be left behind.
Broken attentions makes it even harder to achieve peak experiences, the events we enjoy so profoundly and often remember for a lifetime. To obtain peak experiences it’s best to move into the state famous psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow. When you’re in flow you’re engrossed in what you’re doing, time doesn’t matter. You’ve got a challenge and you rise to it. Many peak experiences, whether it’s having sex or writing a great song, involve that feeling of flow.
One big exception is drugs.
Multitasking, Video Games, Net Surfing and Addiction
You read about people taking cocaine to stay up 40 hours to play video games, but you don’t read about professors writing a research paper doing the same. The superfast connections of video games and the net produce a state of overwhelmed sensation, a kind of “can you top this” sensory overload that becomes its own reward. The situation is especially damaging to kids. Many kids don’t want to “slow down” and read a book. Parents become complicit – you can watch your kid on a game console or cell phone and not worry they’ll be carried away by some predator while they’re playing outside.
Yet as kids jump fast from image to image and subject to subject many become so overaroused they can’t sleep. They soon find school vending machines chocked full of energy drinks that can keep them awake. As normal sleep disappears, more and more teenagers turn to alcohol or pills in order to get night-time sleep or any kind of rest, as recent surveys in the Netherlands have shown. They may fall into the “Up-Down Trap” so common to entertainers, performers, and celebrities. Before they know it they’re hooked to more than their monitors.
So what can you do to break broken attention?
Taking Back Your Brain – The Solutions
Solution 1: Pay Attention to Attention
You don’t want brain belonging to machines you work/play/yearn for. You want it for yourself. You start to take back your brain by learning to actively rest.
No, that’s not an oxymoron. Rest is how you rebuild and renew your body. It’s like food, and without it you can’t survive. You may think rest is watching TV or sleeping, but that’s just passive rest. Active rest is about learning to pay attention – in physical rest to some part of your body; in mental rest to a mental construct; in social rest to another person; in spiritual rest to something larger than yourself. Active rest techniques can be done within 30-60 seconds, but can still manage to get your attention back where you want it. Different active rest techniques can improve attention and sustain it, which at first will make both kids and adults into better video gamers and web searchers. Learning active rest skills can also help them do better on exams.
But then such processes can provide you with a lot more. You can quickly start using active rest techniques to get your brain “into the groove” or “in the zone.” Your new rest skills let you pay full attention, allowing you to make decisions wisely and creatively.
Solution 2 : Direct, Not Mediated Experience
You can play soccer as a video game. At the beginning, just like Guitar Hero, it can be a lot of fun. You can hit shots like the great Brazilian player Pele. Your hand eye coordination may improve.
Or you can play soccer for real. If you do, your skills will enhance more quickly. You’ll enjoy the social connection to other players. You’ll get sunlight, which improves mood, resets your body clocks, gives you vitamin D. You’ll learn new soccer moves and plays, and because you’re physically active you’ll grow new brain cells at night, cells that pop up in memory areas to make you remember your new soccer skills - as well as the most important things that took place that day.
Solution 3: Click Off Your Machines, Click on Your Brain
We’re not machines, and we don’t want to become machines. We rebuild our bodies and brains, renew them, and develop them, with virtually every move we make. Machines can’t do that. You can.
So it’s time to take your brain back. Use it. Enjoy it. Challenge it. Walk in a park – you’ll grow new brain cells. Talk to a neighbor. On your walk back from work, sing a song. Read a book – from cover to cover. Cook a meal with the kids.
Don’t worry. Your computer, cell phone, iPad, and video consoles will do just fine without you.
At least for a while.