The Juggler’s Brain

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The Juggler’s Brain

…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.

…The Net commands our attention with far greater insistency than our television or radio or morning newspaper ever did.  Watch a kid texting his friends or a college student looking over the roll of new messages and requests on her Facebook  page or a businessman scrolling through his e-mails on his BlackBerry – or consider yourself as you enter keywords into Google’s search box and begin following a trail of links. What you see is a mind consumed with a medium. When we’re on line, we are often oblivious to everything else going on around us. The real world recedes as we process the flood of symbols and stimuli coming through our devices.

…Paradox: the Net seizes our attention only to scatter it. We focus intensively on the medium itself, on the flickering screen, but we are distracted by the medium’s rapid-fire delivery of competing messages and stimuli.  Whenever and wherever we log on, the Net presents us with an incredibly seductive blur. Human beings “want more information, more impressions, and more complexity” writes Torkel  Klingberg, the Swedish neuroscientist.

…Not all distractions are bad. As most of us know from experience, if we concentrate too intensively on a tough problem, we can get stuck in a mental rut.  Our thinking narrows, and we struggle vainly to come up with new ideas.  But if we let the problem sit unattended for a time – if we “sleep on it – we often return to it with a fresh perspective and a burst of creativity. 

…The constant distractedness that the Net encourages is very different from the kind of temporary, purposeful diversion of our mind that refreshes our thinking when we are weighing a decision.  The Net’s cacophony of stimuli short-circuits both conscious and unconscious thought, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively.  Our brains turn into simple signal-processing units, quickly shepherding information into consciousness and then back out again.

…The depth of our intelligence hinges on our ability to transfer information from working memory to long-term memory and weave it into conceptual schemas. But the passage from working memory to long-term memory also forms the major bottleneck in our brains.  Unlike long-term memory, which has a  vast capacity, working memory is able to hold only a very small amount of information.  …current evidence suggests that  “we can process no more than about two to four elements at any given time with the actual number probably being at the lower rather than the higher end of this scale.” “Those elements that we are able to hold in working memory will, moreover, quickly vanish “unless we are able to refresh them by rehearsal.”

…The information flowing into our working memory at any given moment is called our “cognitive load.”  When the load exceeds our mind’s ability to store and process the information, we are unable to retain the information or to draw connections with the information already stored in our long-term memory.  We can’t translate the new information into schemas. Our ability to learn suffers and our understanding remains shallow.

…in most countries, people spend , on average,  between nineteen and twenty-seven seconds looking at a page before moving onto the next one, including the time required for the page to load into their browser’s window.

The ability to skim text is every bit as important as the ability to read deeply.  What is different, and troubling, js that skimming is becoming our dominant mode of reading. Once a means to an end, a way to identify information for deeper study, scanning is becoming an end in itself – our preferred way of gathering and making sense of information of all sorts. We have reached the point where a Rhodes Scholar like Florida State’s Joe O’Shea – a philosophy major, no less – is comfortable admitting not only that he doesn’t read books but that he doesn’t see any particular need to read them.  Why bother, when you can Google the bits and pieces you need in a fraction of a second? What we are experiencing is, in a metaphorical sense, a reversal of the early trajectory of civilization: we are evolving from being cultivators of personal knowledge to being hunters and gatherers in the electronic data forest.

(From THE SHALLOWS: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr)