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The rewiring of our brains

Posted on | June 10, 2010 | 3 Comments

Are our brains going haywire? There’s been a lot of buzz about the latest weigh-in on the gadget-addiction theme: The New York Times’ piece Sunday Hooked on Gadgets, Paying a Mental Price.

Scientists say juggling e-mail, phone calls and other incoming information can change how people think and behave. They say our ability to focus is being undermined by bursts of information.

It also leads to crankiness and forgetfulness.

It may well be that rewiring our brains is a good thing in evolutionary terms as the brain begins to understand it can leverage the universal “brain” of the connected world (e.g. who bothers to carry a map anymore when your cell phone will find the way); but we just don’t know. And that this point, we’re forced to navigate uncharted waters. To wit: Nicholas Carr, who has published “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,” has blogged:

“The deeper a technology is woven into the patterns of everyday life, the less choice we have about whether and how we use that technology.”

It’s clearly changed the nature of communications (it began with email) and not to the good. Recently, as part of our move to San Francisco, I came across old letters (hand-written or typed on a piece of paper, remember?) I exchanged with friends after college. Each was several pages long, and, while none was a shining example of brilliant prose, each was nevertheless an insight into how we communicated just a few decades ago. People shared other people’s letters at face-to-face gatherings. They filed them away as if the small censers of thought each represented would smolder to life  again in the future, just as fragrantly. Communications was not just the act of letter writing: We sought time to consider each other.Writing a letter

I came across my grandmother’s college letters from 1910. People wrote to each other from just across campus and invited them to teas and socials and parties at specific events at specific times well in the future. If you had no interest, you were expected to make that decision and communicate it by letter, to consider the hostess. To show up without an RSVP was bad form. Today? You’re invited to things hours or sometimes moments before they happen because we can. The fact that technology enables this seems good in some robotic productivity-improvement way, but in in fact cheapens life. It communicates: “I am so distracted by life I didn’t think of you until just now but whatever. At least I’m giving ya a heads up!”

We react, we don’t consider. We ping, we don’t communicate. We’ve surrendered to the machine.

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3 Responses to “The rewiring of our brains”

  1. Loring Wirbel
    June 11th, 2010 @ 9:46 am

    A close friend is two weeks into a connectedness break, allowing only emergency cell-phone calls, denying herself emails, tweets, Facebook status updates. She’s taking better care of her bees. I’ll make that experiment in a couple weeks, learn how to absorb the natural world again.

    The guy in the NY Times article was fretting about the seconds in which his BART train was under the Bay, and he was unable to link to services for a few short minutes. Anxiety attacks are the first sign that you need to climb down from the always-on mountain.

  2. Brian
    June 11th, 2010 @ 1:10 pm

    I do that up in the mountains at our old cabin (no electricity, no cell service). It really doesn’t take long to reconnect to the natural world and my stomach always sinks when, an hour after I leave and drive over the mountain, I get cell reception again.

    You are far more productive in undistracted mode and I don’t know why we can’t live by that data.

  3. Brad Pierce
    July 15th, 2010 @ 5:28 pm

    Your grandmother probably had beautiful penmanship, too. Maybe, in their way, even those ritualized Edwardian teas and socials were beautiful, too, but I can’t work up much nostalgia for any of it.

    Your observation in the comment is worth seriously investigating. “You are far more productive in undistracted mode and I don’t know why we can’t live by that data.”

    Yes, why?

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