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A Sunday opinion: Online and what’s it’s doing to us

Posted on the August 29th, 2010

Those of us who spend a lot of time plugged into one thing or another electronically are getting a lot of advice and warnings these days. The New York Times, as an example, dedicates an ongoing series of articles to “Your Brain on Computers.”

This week Matt Richtel reports on some scientists’ concerns that all the handy digital devices we are attached to may push us a few synapses too far for our own good (“Digital Devices Deprive Brain of Needed Downtime”Aug 24, 2010).

Richtel writes about the reported downside to electronic multi-tasking — iPod music, online surfing and television watching all at the same time, for instance. It overtaxes our brain and may interfere with longterm memory function and creativity, he quotes some critics saying.

The article is an interesting read, especially as Richtel also includes conversation snippets with some of the overtaxed users themselves. It got me thinking about myself and my own many hours online daily. It’s a reflection I’ve had before, especially after reading reports of scientists saying that new media habits are transforming how the human brain itself works (see Nicholas Carr’s much discussed 2008 article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”).

All the bad news may be true. But if new media really is transforming how our brains work, it seems to me that a too conclusive assessment of these changes now is premature. It’s analogous to timing the potential top speed of a race horse when it’s midstream in crossing a low, rushing river. We’re still at the very very very beginning stage of being plugged in humans. It will be some time before it’s possible to know the major effects, don’t you think?

For example, yes, it’s probably true that these new electronically-connected, cognitive behaviors are turning down or off some longstanding brain functions. On the other hand, they’re almost certainly turning on some entirely new skills or functions.

As a end-user of all these warnings (grateful as I am), I experience the situation as incredibly complex. And sometimes researchers who over-simplify risk focusing so narrowly they neglect important possibilities. Designating myself as a lab rat in this regard, I want to report a few changes for the better in my own behavior in the past year.

One, last year I began practicing mindfulness meditation as a way to tamp down the racing brain effect and/or anxiety that can typically accompany hours of time online.

Two, a few months ago I — quite uncharacteristically — suddenly decided to begin walking every day, and I also enrolled in twice-weekly classes at a nearby Pilates studio. I amazed myself by such laudable physical behavior, and amazed myself even more by sticking to the new regimen (and even enjoying it!).

And three, I find myself often visualizing a change in my daily schedule that sees me plopped comfortably on the sofa in an hour-long break in which I am clutching that old invention — a book — and reading it hyperlink free (this doesn’t include my already-present habit of reading at bedtime). This is still in the process of being implemented fully — and I also see a Kindle appearing soon in my future — but it feels to me as a new behavior that’s going to stick.

All of these new offline, off-phone, off-iPod behaviors felt as if they popped up out of nowhere. But as any good psychologist will tell us, popping up out of nowhere is more or less a myth in human behavior. So some groundwork for these changes was going on somewhere in my over-plugged in, overstressed psyche before I ever settled down on my meditation mat or laced up my walking shoes. Could the catalyst be related to relieving an overstressed state of mind?

Is there a relation here between being a fairly heavy user of new media and these admirable new offline activities of mine? Who knows? But the question, in my opinion, is well worth asking.

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