We are all worrying about it. We have all noticed changes in our our memory, our attention and our behavior. I’m talking about what “the internet” is doing to our brains.
I took my worry to a book, because it is still my opinion that long-form authors can contemplate the strongest research and compose the deepest arguments. There are at least ten books on this topic to choose from now; I read some book reviews (online!) and chose “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” by Nicholas Carr.
Okay if this is a book review, then here’s my review: great book. But this isn’t really the place for a formal book review; this is a blog, and you are reading it online, so what you are really doing is just skimming the screen in an “F” pattern looking for BOLDED INFORMATION and being distracted by hyperlinks and flashing ads. Turns out even though I’ve tried to keep it simple and engaging, you’re probably not even reading any of my posts from beginning to end, as I have logically expected you to.
BUT IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT
It’s the fault of our limited human short-term memory. Carr uses a fabulous metaphor that transferring new information from our short-term memory into our long-term memory is a slow and limited process, much like trying to fill a bathtub with a thimble. The bathtub is our long-term memory – and it is actually infinitely fillable, theoretically. But the bathtub can only be filled with a thimble. There’s a serious bottleneck of information at that thimble, and adding more information doesn’t help it transfer to our long-term memory. Making the thimble bigger might help, but that is not what the information age is doing, and I don’t have any specific ideas on how to hack the brain to increase this transfer rate.
APPLYING THE METAPHOR TO THE SCREEN
When we read a page online, the information is frequently surrounded by other distractions: there are the friendly icons at the bottom of our home screen, there are the indicators on your mail and text icons that you have a new message, there is a warning light on your reminders icon or equivalent that you still have things to complete today; on a specific webpage, there are sometimes ads on the sidebars or at the bottom which are helpfully targeted precisely to your needs, there are hyperlinks embedded within the text to help you define tricky words or pop culture references, or to direct you to further information or a buying opportunity.
We may think that we have the self-restraint to push forward through these distractions, and it may help on some level if we do practice the discipline of maintaining focus on the task at hand (reading through this page, for example). However the real problem is that in our unconscious mind, we are being distracted by the ads and hyperlinks because we are unconsciously trying to make decisions about whether or not to click on a link. Trying to make all these, albeit unconscious, decisions taxes our working memory. It uses up some of the thimble. Now if we are also consciously regarding the hyperlinks and ads and consciously trying to decide whether to click on a link or an ad, then we are using even more of the thimble. There is not much room left in the thimble, or in our working memory, to transfer any information into the bathtub or long-term memory. The result is a shallow, at best, retention of the information.
THE THIMBLE IS SHRINKING
Now there are many references to research by legit organizations (Stanford etc) which show that test subjects retain information from a printed page better than from a screen. Hands down. You can go and read the book and look up the research, or you can just take my word for it.
You will remember the details and context in a news article better if you read it in a printed newspaper than if you read it online. This is easy to test for so go ahead and design an experiment at home with your family, and see the results for yourself. Comprehension and retention are impeded by reading online. The distractions and choices inherent in online reading and surfing tax working memory and make the thimble smaller.
SO WHAT CAN YOU DO
Well I’m certainly not going to tell you to stop reading online, to cancel your internet account or to look down your nose at the incredible advantages that the internet information age has brought us. But I am going to offer you some behaviors that you can adopt to mitigate the changes in your brain from our ubiquitous web surfing.
- Read paper books. Books are not obsolete. The physicality of books still has a relevant function. Paper books allow the brain to gently relax into a state of deep reading and thinking. Books do not overtax the working memory (except for certain hyper-footnoted books – anything by David Foster Wallace comes to mind). Books are a great way to move information from short-term memory into long-term memory. I especially like to underline and make notations in books – adding a physical component to my visual exercise helps me remember. This is not distracting, this is enhanced learning. Neurons that fire together wire together.
- Read physical, long-form journalism. Most magazines are simply excuses for selling ads. If you want to protect your brain, read magazines with limited ads that are truly maintained through subscriptions and foundations. My favorite example is Harpers Magazine, which is consistently excellent. I also love reading The New Yorker and The Utne Reader. I can admit that The Economist bores me to tears, but it would be a great contender for long-form journalism. The Atlantic Monthly is alternatively filled with astounding articles and pandering infogendas. Read these in their physical manifestations. Only go online to look up out-of-print articles, then print those out and read them.
- Listen to long-form radio productions. NPR and the CBC usually have a story longer than 5 minutes every day. I’m not talking about a talk show. Howard Stern is not there to enrich your long-term memory. Our most ancient style of learning is obviously auditory; hearing the different voices and textures of life is similarly an enriching learning experience, which fills the thimble efficiently and lets you transfer information to long-term memory. Alternately, attend lectures that hopefully aren’t full of soul-sucking powerpoint presentations.
- Practice mindfulness. This is a very basic and non-denominational method of stilling your mind chatter. In addition to formal meditation practice, it is useful to engage in mindful listening, mindful eating etc. Even when you are at your computer, try to engage fully in one task at a time. (That means don’t talk on the phone while also checking your email, reviewing your calendar, dreaming of a holiday, buying school supplies online and drinking your coffee. Ease up already!)
ELITIST? HELL YA
Are these mitigating suggestions elitist because it costs money to buy books and magazines, attend lectures and hire a mindfulness coach, but the internet is free? Sort of. But there are libraries, for now, where books and magazines can be freely borrowed. You can listen to radio documentaries and probably learn mindfulness from a book or a friend. The fact is, good information has to be paid for. Good information has to be researched, fact-checked, edited, crafted by experience and presented in an intellectually and aesthetically compelling manner. That has never come free, does not come free and will never come free. If that offends you, then support a library so that people less fortunate than you can also read journalism and fiction.
I would like to be among the few who still has room in my working memory to transfer information to my long-term memory. I would like to retain a richness of memories and experiences to draw from so that I can think deeply about ideas, form considered opinions and have wisdom in my old age. I do not want to erode this process because of my addiction to technology and end up a listless, shallow shell of a human – someone who is easily distracted by bright colors and baubles. Let that happen to everyone else. They will be easier to care for and sell to, after all.
NO MORE HYPERLINKS EMBEDDED IN BODY OF TEXT
So for my small part, I made a decision not to imbed hyperlinks into the body of my text anymore. Instead, if I think a link is going to be helpful, I will submit it at the bottom of my post.
WHY BLOG AT ALL
Writing this blog was really my own form of mitigating forgetfulness. I read so many books and plow through so much information, but find it difficult to retain it all. One of my best strategies for learning was to make sure someone else was reading a certain book at the same time as me, and then engage in long conversations about the book. These conversations would force me to go back to the book and make references, and to reconsider my point of view based on the other reader’s impressions – behaviors that deepen learning. Usually these conversations would raise even more questions and I would seek out another book for further answers. This was imminently helpful. But I ran out of humans that could be interested in reading books at the exact same time and with the same intensity as me. What a betrayal that people have different interests than mine! My mom is the only one who keeps pace with me nearly book for book, and I try to keep pace with her books in return.
Writing these posts is really just a chance for me to process the books and information that I have been reading, either in the absence of long conversations or in addition to them. This is my way of extending the time this information is in my working memory, so that my little thimble has more of a chance to transfer information into my long-term memory. In addition, once the information has been posted, I can refer back to it at any time when my long-term memory fails me, giving the thimble another opportunity to fill the bathtub. I can re-read the posts whenever I need to deepen my memories of it.
NOW YOU CAN GET CLICKING AGAIN
“The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our Brains” by Nicholas Carr
Petition to save Toronto’s Public Libraries
Wiki site on Mindfulness