June 7, 2010

Warning: this is your brain on the internet.

My year-long experiment with social media is officially over. I spent all of April and May rethinking the online habits that had just about hijacked my real life. After some honest reflection, I have decided there are only two social networking efforts that matter to me: 1) checking in with friends and 2) writing about personal development and books for anyone who likes that sort of thing. If you want to help me share content/gain readers, that’s great. If not, I’m writing just for you (when you’re interested) and the sheer joy of it. And that’s fine with me.

Oddly, I seemed to have less and less time for these pursuits when my online crusade was at its peak. A disturbing lack of focus was creeping into my work habits, whether I was cleaning the house, writing an article or planning a program. I chalked it up to an excess of divided interests, aided by my online behaviors. As if to underscore the reasons I decided to reclaim my own attention, I have discovered a slug of new books about how our brains can be morphed by internet behaviors.

Nicholas Carr’s new book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains explores the link between our online behaviors and the decline of deep concentration, introspection, contemplative thinking and creativity. Thankfully, the brain is a very plastic organ and Carr argues that it can be adapted away from our online tendency to jump from shiny thing to shiny thing. Carr says this sort of interrupted thinking is actually a more natural state for the human brain and one that has only been circumvented by mankind’s access to (get this) the printed page, which allowed people to become more educated, civilized and capable of sustained concentration. In other words, progress has come at the price of regression. Now there’s food for thought for anyone who has noticed a decline in ability to do sustained reading and thinking.

Decades after Albert Einstein’s death, his genius is still informing us. As a result of some of the research done on his brain over the past 20 years, the field of neuroscience has exploded with new information about brain function. Doug Fields, a researcher at the National Institute of Health, has written The Other Brain, a new book about some of the most recent discoveries in neuroscience. One of the biggest findings concerns the role of the glia, a part of the brain that was previously considered to be nothing more than glue that held the brain together. Einstein’s brain had an abnormally high number of these astrocytes, which are involved in complex thinking and imagery. The glia in our brains transmit conversations between neurons and rebroadcast them to distant areas of the brain. I haven’t read the book yet, but I look forward to seeing how this neuroscientist/author can make this research accessible to the reading public. (For fun background on this research, check out NPR’s story.)

Here is a title that seems destined for my reading list as I approach my 50th birthday: The Secret Life of the Grown Up Brain, by Barbara Strauch. In the strange brew that is now my brain, I alternate between thinking I’ve lost my mind and that I’m beginning to possess wisdom. (Believe me, the former is more obvious to other people than the latter!) Whether it’s noticeable to anyone else or not, decisions and tasks that were once difficult are much easier. I don’t repeat the same mistakes as often as I once did. Strauch’s book suggests the middle-aged brain is NOT on a steady decline. It actually improves in a number of areas with age. Hurray for experience, life’s greatest teacher! Strauch is a neuroscientist who has done extensive brain research and published a book on the teenage brain, in part because of her fascination with her son’s development. With her own aging, she became increasingly interested in the brain function of grown ups, people she defines as between the ages of 40 and 65.

While no one should dismiss the positive influence information technology has on us, there is a downside and people are beginning to notice, study, and write about it. We may be reaching a saturation point for handling stimuli, according to Maggie Jackson, author of Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age. Researchers at the University of California-San Diego say the average American hears, sees, or reads 34 gigabytes worth of information a day, a figure that’s risen 5 percent each year since 1980.

As we exercise the part of the brain that multi-tasks, rushes and partially listens, the part that manages our ability to focus is languishing, says Edward Hallowell, M.D., author of CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap. Another indication of shrinking memory is a tendency to move from one task to another without finishing anything, says Torkel Klingberg, M.D., author of The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory.

Challenging the brain requires more active participation than watching TV or surfing the internet. When we are tired, we naturally choose the most passive forms of stimulation we can find, even though we may feel unfulfilled by how we spend our time. Winifred Gallagher, author of Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, says we need to push ourselves toward more challenging mental work in order to improve brain function.

Here are a few tips from the experts to help manage online behaviors:

1) Notice your habits and whether you are focusing on the right things.
2) Don’t search for inane things on the internet JUST because you can.
3) Practice your sustained attention skills by reading a book, meditating and praying.
4) Make notes about things you’d like to read later to keep yourself on task.
5) Take breaks to recharge and unplug.

For my part, I’ll be taming my inner social media maven and trusting that a few faithful readers is good enough for this endeavor. If you are one of them, I thank you again for reading.