How the Internet Redesigns your Mind | Choose your Default Mode


Imagine for a second that everyone had a magical
cube in their pockets. With the right permutation, you could materialize
all kinds of food or drink. At first there was only one cube in existence
and nobody knew what it did until after about a year of fiddling with the thing, someone
found the permutation for water. After that, they started to quickly figure
out how to make more things like tea and avocados and all kinds of vegetables. Over several years, they then figured out
how to manufacture the cubes efficiently and inexpensively and with a lot more cubes and
plenty of people to play with them, things rapidly progressed to the point where they
were making more complex things like kimchi, butter or yogurt. Cube users were increasing exponentially and
the world was excited about this- it was going to cure world hunger, standard of living would
increase across the globe, everyone would have infinite access to healthy foods! A couple days later beer was added to the
list. Then a bunch of hard liquors came out and
a few people became slightly worried about the whole situation. Then a couple weeks later two guys from Virginia
show up and say “Hey uhhh we just made cocaine with the cube.” For the first time in most of these people’s
lives, they were in a situation where they had access to a huge variety of choices at
all moments during the day . They could do anything from having the highest quality nourishing
meal, to deciding to add just one or two cookies to their lunch, or they could say “eh work’s
not going so well, maybe a spot of cocaine would help.” And that’s kind of what we have with the
internet. OK It’s unrealistic to say you get pathologically
addicted to the internet as fast as you would to cocaine, but just as the mystical cube
people can choose to nourish or poison their bodies at any point in the day, the internet
allows us to subject our brains to information that enriches our intellect and gives us new
perspectives, OR we can choose streams of information that leave us thinking “What
I have been doing the past 30 minutes?” The thing is, the problem goes deeper than
just the minutes you lose to twitter, facebook or reddit. The way you use the internet literally changes
your brain’s default way of operating, and part of it has to do with how intimately your
brain interacts with tools. A 2010 research article from the association
of psychological science found that when you are using a tool, your brain understands the
tool not as something you are manipulating with your hands, but actually as if it were
a part of your body. For example if you have someone hold a marker
and then you could ask their brain to describe their right hand, the brain might say something
like “I have 6 rods coming out of a meat filled slab. 5 of the rods are bendable and 3 of them are
attached to a rigid, meatless rod.” Kind of like you are what you eat, from your
brain’s perspective you are what you use. But what about more abstract tools? In Nicholas Carr’s book “The Shallows,”
which is all about how the internet affects your brain, he explains how different tools
change our perception of the world and the the actual way we think, and not just what
we think about. One example is the very simple and useful
tool that is the map. Without the map people would rely on their
sight as well as their understanding of intricate smells and sounds to create a 3D landscape
in their minds. The map then simplifies this complex process
down to just visualizing your position in space as a point on a 2D plane. Another example is how originally our perception
of time was an understanding of how cycles and rhythms of the natural world relate to
each other. With the advent of the mechanical clock, we
began to look at our day as just a compilation of neatly segmented slices of time. Even something as simple as the spaces between
words can be considered a tool that changes the way we use our brains. For a while, there were no spaces between
words and everything was just jammed together, so you had to read the text out loud to see
where one word began and another ended. Putting spaces between words made the task
of reading much easier to the point that people could read silently to themselves for much
longer stretches of time. Because people now had something they could
engage with and stay concentrated on for hours at a time, deep focus became a more widespread
skill. However, the recent internet environment is
one that wires peoples’ brains for enhanced distractibility. At all times you have multiple streams of
information in the form of notifications, advertisements, and messages
from your friends -all things that you can redirect your attention to. Our brains are naturally on the alert for
new information, and the more we’re exposed to this kind of virtual interface, the more
our brain decides to rewire itself to respond to and even crave these internet distractions. Try and think about how long you usually stay
on one tab, one application or one video at a time. Might be no longer than a couple minutes or
even a few seconds. You might have flipped over to facebook in
just the course of this video. I’ve even found myself opening up reddit
on my phone while watching a movie on my TV that I’m enjoying. I’m already entertained, so what am I doing? You can exercise or let atrophy different
modes of thinking. Maybe at some point you finally set some time
aside to work on that big project you’ve been meaning to do, only to find yourself
feeling uncomfortable and asking yourself “Why can’t I focus?” The reason is the same as why most people
can’t sign their names with their left hand. Alright, so what if we are gearing our brains
to be distracted? Maybe things take a little bit longer to do-
that’s not that terrible. The problem with getting distracted like this
has to do with how your short term memory processing works. Your brain, ironically, can be compared to
a web browser. For example, when you’re shopping on Amazon,
you might want to go back a couple pages to double check the price of something. You can do this by clicking the back button
because the web browser stores those pages in its recent history. When you’re doing something like reading
a book, your brain is processing and storing the information in short term memory so it
can relate the paragraph you’re reading to the last couple paragraphs you just read. If you get distracted by a text message while
you’re reading, you might find that when you go back to the sentence you were just
on, you’re asking “Wait, who are they talking about?” This is because getting distracted and shifting
your attention to the text message is like clearing your recent browser history. Your brain can’t hit the back button to
review what it just read because it dumped what was in the short term memory so it could
focus on the text message, so you end up having to to reread the last paragraph or two. Being distracted like this gets in the way
of the insightful, creative thinking necessary to complete fulfilling and ambitious tasks. You process information in the short term
memory like this when you’re doing anything from working on a business idea, to practicing
piano or writing an article. With enough time and uninterrupted focus,
the information slowly trickles from your conscious short term memory to your subconscious
long term memory. And it’s only when the information is in
the long term memory that you can make insightful connections with other pieces of information
you’ve picked up in the past. The reason you get those Aha! Moments and creative insights out of the blue
is because in the background, your subconscious long term memory is processing new and old
bits of information and making connections between them. When something distracts you and pulls your
focus from the task at hand, this transfer of information from short term to long term
memory gets interrupted. “Attention is the key to the entire process
of transferring information into long term memory and creating connections.” To be truly productive and successful professionally
or creatively in this competitive and fast moving world, you need to set up long blocks
of time where you can work completely uninterrupted and you’ll need to have developed a mind
where distraction is not the default mode. When people are picking out what to eat they
kind of have it in the back of their mind how that piece of food is going to change
their body. They can expect that while processed junk
food does taste good, it will make them gain weight and have less energy. But I don’t think enough people are thinking
“Is the way I’m about to use my smart phone right now going to change my brain’s
default setting to be more focused or more distracted?” Looking at a couple memes for 5 minutes when
you get a quick break from work probably doesn’t feel like a big deal and it probably isn’t. Then again, your brain has the annoying ability
to quickly habituate towards activities that provide enjoyment for very little energy. Looking back on my cube analogy, cocaine may
seem like too intense of an example for the bad aspects of the internet. Well, research has shown that the difficulty
with cocaine isn’t just that it rewires your pleasure center to make you addicted
to it, cocaine actually damages the dendrites of the neurons in the prefrontal cortex- this
is the area of the brain that is responsible for executive control. Executive control is essentially the ability
to stay rational, maintain focus and exert willpower in order to achieve some sort of
long term goal. This means that at the same time one area
of the addict’s brain is wired to crave cocaine, the area that he needs to rely on
to resist these cravings is damaged. It’s this kind of rewiring of the brain
in a way that interferes with your ability to reach your personal potential that I’m
pointing to when I make the comparison to certain negative aspects of the internet. While it happens slowly, these quick or instant
bursts of new and interesting information from the internet can become a slippery slope
into a brain that enjoys and desires distraction and prefer instant gratification. Also, consider this: in cases of people truly
addicted to the internet they also have severely reduced executive function, similar to the
cocaine addicts. In many ways, the internet is an incredibly
useful and helpful tool. But a deeper understanding of which aspects
of the internet affect your brain in what ways is necessary to modify your usage in
a way that keeps your brain functioning the way you want it to. We’ll be looking at this more in depth soon,
so stick around.

Danny Hutson

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