The down side to having easy access to an ocean of knowledge at our fingertips is that we remember less information knowing that we can simply access it again later. Researchers have found that we are relying on the internet to store knowledge long-term, instead of our own brains. Neuro-imaging shows that, basically, our brain is learning to disregard information found online, and the more we use Google; the less likely we are to retain what we see.
Nicholas Carr, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his book, The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our Brains, explains that the printed book served to focus our attention, promoting deep and creative thought. Not only do we acquire knowledge through reading books, but the author’s words also create intellectual vibrations within our own minds. The internet, however, encourages rapid and distracted sampling of small bits of information from many sources. This diminishes our capacity for concentration and contemplation.
Our attention is increasingly focused on handheld devices
Are we too wired to concentrate?
When our attention is focused on computer screens and handheld devices, it can leave us disengaged and dissatisfied. The internet reflects an industrialist ethic of optimized production, efficiency and consumption. The faster we surf the web, the more links we click and pages we view. This in turn increases the opportunities to customise the advertisements they feed us. It is in the companies’ economic interest to drive us to distraction, they’re not encouraging leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought.
Mark Fisher, author of Capitalist Realism and lecturer in philosophy, encounters many students who, when asked to read for more than a couple of sentences, protest saying they can’t do it, that it’s boring. It’s not so much the content of the written material, but rather the act of reading itself that is deemed to be boring. They’re too wired to concentrate.
To be bored in this context simply means to be removed from the communicative sensation-stimulus matrix. Fisher calls it “depressive hedonia”, which he defines as an inability to do anything other than pursue pleasure. With a feeling that something is missing, people go online seeking pleasure and novelty to fill the void.
Watch what this looks like from the perspective of someone who forgot their phone in this video by Charlene de Guzman.
Replacing sensation with contemplation
If we lose those quiet spaces, or fill them up with “content”, we will sacrifice something important not only in ourselves but in our culture. To preserve the health of our brains and the human capacity for deep reflection, we need to practice mindfulness and contemplation daily. Studies show that meditation strengthens connections between areas associated with higher order brain functions like concentration and attention. Read our UPLIFT feature about how the brain changes when you meditate.
However, it would be unwise to put the blame solely on the internet. Author Mark McGuiness reminds us that the internet is merely exaggerating the natural tendency of the ‘monkey mind’ to keep jumping from thought to thought like the branches of a tree.
The undisciplined mind is easily agitated, nervous, wanting, fearful, preoccupied, distracted, scattered, and confused. In meditation we can begin to see just how busy and distracted our minds really are.
– Steve Hagen, Meditation Now or Never
To subdue the helter-skelter mind, we need to exercise self-disciple through practices like Samatha – concentration, tranquillity; and Vipassana – insight. Our daily activities are responsible for shaping the structure of our brain, so choose with care the brain that you build for yourself.