I don’t have the attention span to write this article.
In the course of penning this introductory paragraph, I’ve taken umpteen email breaks, gotten distracted by several Wikipedia wormholes, and taken an hour’s time out to watch Frontline documentary clips on YouTube. It has taken me, in toto, seven days to write a five-paragraph article about my generation’s decreasing attention span. At least the irony isn’t lost on me.
A social researcher tracking my movements across the web might discover that, in the words of University College of London professor and director of CIBER (the Centre for Information Behaviour and the Evaluation of Research) David Nicholas, I am “skipping over the virtual landscape.” Nicholas is among the first people to systematically study the way people research online by analyzing millions of anonymous data records. According to this Telegraph article, he found that while researching a subject, four out of 10 young people never revisited the same web page twice, while people who grew up before the age of the internet repeatedly returned to the same source. Which is to say, people who came of age in an era when “research” meant “studious hours in the library stacks” are more accustomed to in-depth work with sources, while young ADD-addled rapscallions like myself are skipping around, skimming, gleaning bits and pieces of information from disparate sources as we bleep-bloop away on our infernal mobile devices. This comes as no surprise to me: at any given time, I have over fifteen tabs open in my browser, a couple of PDFs primed, and a handful of half-finished emails waiting to be attended to. And, although my methods are less scientific than Professor Nicholas’, I sense the same proclivities among my peers. A friend of mine recently sent me a link to an article, bragging that it was “the longest thing he’d ever read online.” I printed it out: it was four pages long.
What is happening? Well, the information overload we’ve come to expect from web-surfing just might be reshaping how we think.
Contrary to popular belief, the mind is plastic no matter how old you are. According to leading neuroscientist Michael Merzenich, of the University of California, San Francisco, the plasticity of the brain — its ability to jumble neurons, and re-organize neural networks and their function based on new experiences — exists from cradle to grave. Merzenich is famous for a series of experiments done on owl monkeys, in which portions of the monkey brains expected to be in total disarray after a series of peripheral nerves were cut and rearranged were found to be essentially normal, implying that the brain can reorganize itself in response to new situations and stimuli. Quoth Merzenich: “if the brain map could normalize its structure in response to abnormal input, the prevailing view that we are born with a hardwired system had to be wrong.” Ie, “the brain had to be plastic.” In short, brains can spontaneously reprogram themselves in order to function more efficiently, or more harmoniously with their environments.
Now consider the swiftly-changing information flow that has become the norm in 21st-century life. Certainly, the stimuli we regularly feed our brains has changed tremendously in the last ten years. From the moment we wake up in the morning to the moment we put down our iPhones at night, we’re faced with an immeasurable fount of data, opinion, images, videos, text, and ideas pouring out at us from our computers, televisions, and devices. Would it be so bizarre to imagine that our brains are slowly molding themselves to work with this information flow, developing the ability to dart around, manage several chains of thought at once, power-browsing through the data-slop, and, as Professor Nicholas so quaintly puts it, learning to “skip over the virtual landscape?” Is the Net programming us?
Media critic Douglas Rushkoff thinks so. In a talk given at SXSW this year (see above), he warns, “if we don’t create a society that at least knows there’s a thing called programming, then we will end up being not the programmers, but the users — and, worse, the used.” He’s discussing open-source software and media literacy, but he might as well be talking about the larger power that our programs hold over us, culturally as well as neurologically.
As Nicholas Carr much more eloquently puts it in this fabulous and terrifying article from the Atlantic, “As we use…our ‘intellectual technologies’–the tools that extend our mental rather than our physical capacities–we inevitably begin to take on the qualities of those technologies.”
He adds, further:
The process of adapting to new intellectual technologies is reflected in the changing metaphors we use to explain ourselves to ourselves. When the mechanical clock arrived, people began thinking of their brains as operating “like clockwork.” Today, in the age of software, we have come to think of them as operating “like computers.” But the changes, neuroscience tells us, go much deeper than metaphor. Thanks to our brain’s plasticity, the adaptation occurs also at a biological level.
Clocks taught us to compartmentalize time. But what have computers done to us? To be sure, we live in an era when “like computers” no longer means what it once did. In the time of early cybernetic theory, Norbert Wiener et al. saw parallels between the computer and the human mind: we shared feedback systems, an urge to work upstream against prevailing forces of entropy; we both strove to create function and meaning out of chaos. A “computer” meant something rational, analytic, and methodical.
Now, “like a computer” represents something else entirely: a ceaseless flow of changing, multifaceted, immediately accessible information-particles — and all the distraction that entails. It’s possible that plasticity of our brains allows us to adapt to these factors, but how will that affect the way we think? Or relate to others? Certainly, I’m not advocating a reactionary attitude this new pace of things, or a dismissal of online reading and research, but I do think we should take a step backwards and frankly assess the state of our brains.
Our new brains.
Related (paper) sources:
The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science
The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Mental Force
Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves