Internet Brain

“When we go online,

we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading,

man working on the smartphone in sunny day

hurried and distracted thinking,

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and superficial learning.”

Nicholas Carr, The Shallows

Internet culture and the Internet itself are now so ubiquitous that you may not even think of life as being separated into online and offline. If you have a smartphone (and the odds are good that you do), you probably keep it in a pocket or bag–somewhere very close to your body–throughout the day. And overnight, too, lots of us will keep it on a bedside table or right on the mattress or pillow we’re sleeping on.

Even if you’re not actively using your phone, you could receive a text, social media notification, or some other message at any time because it is always connected. It could, of course, lose the signal. But there’s a good chance you’ll see that as a frustration rather than a benefit. I try to be judicious about my phone usage, but I found myself annoyed on a recent camping trip when I couldn’t post to Instagram without any signal at the campsite.

Even if you don’t have a phone or don’t have it on you, you’re likely surrounded by an expanding array of networked things. Everything from fridges to things that we wear to shops and theme parks are becoming more connected in some form or another. Whether cyberspace is taking over the real world, or the real world is diving into cyberspace, we are now thoroughly immersed.

As someone who can remember life pre-Internet (I’m old…ish), it’s crazy to think how quickly and thoroughly things have changed. How natural it feels now to be connected all the time. Most of us could not function without it–whether for the demands and obligations of work or school, or for the more pleasurable things like entertainment, relationships, and staying in the know so you’re not missing out. Constant connectivity, and our reliance on it, has become a way of life.

But because of the dramatic and comprehensive saturation, we should take time to examine the kinds of things it might be doing to us that we’re not immediately aware of. Specifically, how it shapes the way we think, feel, and act. Our brains are the epicenter of concentration, emotion, intelligence, and imagination. We better make sure that anything influencing our brain function–Internet or otherwise–isn’t hampering our ability to be ourselves and be fully human. A person is not just a brain but a fully embodied creature embedded in society. Any changes to our brain will shape how we act with other people and move and breathe in the world.

In some ways, heavy use and reliance on the Internet have boosted our mental and relational powers. Rapid communication and new ways of speaking (emoji, GIFs, memes, and short videos), the way we share stories and experiences, quickly finding information, surrounding ourselves with diverse points of view, and certain improvements in abstract thinking and visual-spatial skills.

But the Internet doesn’t just boost and supplement what we can already do. It also shapes us in its image. Our brains have what’s called neuroplasticity–they adapt and rewire themselves based on what we subject them to. In Internet immersion, our brains start to resemble the things that typify the web.

A preference for the short and sweet–the informal and immediate–because that’s how tweets, texts, and other notifications are packaged. An attention span that defaults to skimming the surface because it’s acclimated to scrolling and swiping with few pauses. Extreme multitasking and information overload that mirrors the bustle of several apps, windows, and tabs all in play at the same time. A reliance on servers for memory rather than our own mind because it’s easier to offshore it. And a reliance on links and searches in a browser to move between ideas rather than an internalized understanding of what’s true and how it’s interrelated with other things.

Kind of a big deal. Maybe you notice these things about yourself, maybe not. But if you’re using your phone or some other kind of device for hours a day, this is the kind of shaping and reshaping that’s happening. For all the perks connectivity brings, we’re at the same time being rewired in some concerning ways.  “The net seizes our attention only to scatter it.” We are losing a centered, integrated sense of calm, attention, and deep thinking.

So what do we do? Few of us can disconnect completely. But you should disconnect when you can. You’ll crave connectivity–at a visceral level–so this isn’t easy. Once it’s conditioned, your brain is waiting for the sweet neurochemical hit of a notification and the habitual frenzy of swiping through apps. But carving out some time to not be connected or near a device can help you get back to a better baseline. Maybe try things like no Facebook days or setting a timer for how long you’ll allow yourself to wander through messages and pages. Keep your phone in another room when you go to bed. Maybe that sounds lame or laughable. I get it. You’ll have to figure out what works for you.

Spend some time doing activities that encourage focused attention and long, deep thought. Things like reading, writing, painting, cooking, listening to music (where you focus only on the music). They’ve been a part of the human experience for a long time because of the individual and cultural benefits they bring. They can be a strong counterbalance to the scattering effects of the Internet.

And get outside. Since connectivity is there at every turn, a change of scenery and the restorative benefits of nature can be especially vital. You may find yourself without any signal to connect to at all, and hopefully you’ll see it as a godsend rather than an annoyance like I did.

Internet brain is the standard model we’re all conforming to. The struggles and limitations that result from being constantly connected outweigh the perks. We can reduce the struggles and limitations by taking time to disconnect, diving into things that take the neuroplasticity of our brains in welcome directions, and immerse ourselves in nature. The more connected we become, the more the Internet will continue to shape us. But we can choose to make it one among many things shaping us, rather than the predominant force guiding how we live.

This Week in Upgrades: November 21

It’s here, guys. Thanksgiving week. If you weren’t listening to Christmas music already the last couple weeks like me, we’re legitimately into the holiday season now. I wrote some thoughts about the holidays yesterday if you didn’t get a chance to check it out. Do you have traditions you’re looking forward to? Favorite movies and music? Places you’ll go? Are there people and things you miss that are no longer around?

Here’s the best that I could find on the Internet this week. Check them out in-between the dishes you’re cooking.

Nature at its most intense. A reminder that safety is not guaranteed.

We all really need to move beyond identity politics.

Some Native American tribes are reviving indigenous crops, and it’s much more than a food fad.

Speaking of food, vegetables may be your secret weapon against illness this winter.

Is now finally the right time for electric cars?

Breakthrough success is not about waiting until you’re old enough. Get going!

CRISPR has been used on humans for the first time. The start of a new era of medicine.

If you’re still trying to make sense of the election, this is worth checking out.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that excessive screen time can rewire youngsters’ brains. “I would minimize it.”

Weekly global warming alarm bells: the North Pole is 36 degrees above normal and Arctic sea ice is at a record low.

National Bird looks like a must-see documentary.

“Post-truth” is Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year. I’ve got some thoughts on what’s true and how we know in a post coming soon.

Have a wonderful week and Thanksgiving! (if you celebrate it).

 

Happiness is More than a Feeling

Have you heard of the drug Wellbutrin? It’s prescribed primarily for people diagnosed with “major depressive disorder” or “seasonal affective disorder.”

Sometimes the people prescribed Wellbutrin have recently suffered the death of a loved one. The American Psychiatric Association’s handbook used to strongly caution against doing so. The “bereavement exclusion,” as it was known, pointed to grief as a natural process in the face of traumatic loss. Even as we had developed mood-boosting pills for just about everything else, grief was such a powerful and known agony it remained a special case to be wary about handling with antidepressants.

But in the most recent APA handbook, the bereavement exclusion was controversially removed. The line between grief and major depression has been blurred. Mourning the loss of a loved one for more than two weeks is now considered a potential mental health risk. Considered abnormal.

We live in a happy-obsessed culture. There are an increasing number of official disorders and ready-made fixes for those disorders. There’s little room left for normal moments of unhappiness–even grief. Take a pill and cheer up already. Happiness maintenance has become a whole industry. And a lot of businesses are making great profits from the millions of Americans who aren’t feeling happy.

If we stop and think for a minute, though, do we even know what it means to be happy? If I asked you to describe happiness, what does it entail?

When does it happen? Why does it happen? Can we make ourselves happy? If so, how? Is a pill a good way to support happiness?

Can we make ourselves happy all the time? Should we?

Is happiness a bodily sensation? Is it a state of being?

Is happiness maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain? Is it the feeling that happens when you eat delicious food, hear awesome music, watch hilarious comedy, have heavenly sex, consume perception-altering substances, and see Instagrammable sights? Is it having a lot of money, popularity, or power?

So many questions and so little clarity. We say happy or happiness like we’re all talking about the same thing. But are we?

Pharmaceutical companies operate with a definite sense of what they think happiness is: pleasurable brain chemistry. For them, sadness and other painful detours from happiness are simply a “neurochemical problem.” You have to get the brain chemistry right again–perhaps with a pill that they conveniently make.

Let’s be clear: there’s nothing wrong with pleasurable bodily sensation. There are some pretty great feelings from the food, the music, the comedy, the sex, the alcohol or caffeine, the views. But they always fade. You take the last bite. The final joke is told. The buzz wears off. The vacation ends. The body cools off after sex.

We even adjust to and can become bored by certain pleasures in a process called hedonic adaptation. Sometimes when you’ve had a hit of this and level out, you either need a bigger hit or a different kind of hit to achieve the same level the original pleasure gave you. This is what’s behind the vicious cycle of addiction.

Even if we could constantly find new ways to experience nearly seamless pleasure, the reality is that sometimes things just aren’t OK. No amount of retail therapy, alcohol, ice cream, sex, or whatever else we ingest or participate in can cover the hurt, confusion, and loss of self.

We experience and are meant to experience hundreds of different emotions. They’re our push-notification system for life. Not all of our experiences are positive and awesome and exhilarating. Pixar’s Inside Out nailed this truth. Sometimes joy is laced with sadness. Sometimes fear and anger need their moment. It’s not healthy to aspire to be feeling good feels all the time.

If we do aspire to that, we’re quite likely to overeat, have one-dimensional relationships, have a difficult time overcoming loss and struggle, aspire for more money without ever feeling like we have enough, equate worth with stuff rather than relationships, and worse.

That’s not what being human is about.

I believe that happiness is about wholeness. And I’m in good company. Aristotle and other Greek philosophers used the word eudaimonia, which is often translated as “happiness.” But he wasn’t talking about pleasant brain chemistry. He was talking about flourishing. About being an integrated, growing, maturing, thoughtful person. A state of being rather than a state of mind.

It’s about exercising and challenging your human capacities. About being fully human–as far as it is possible for you. It’s about finding a lasting groove rather than momentary self-gratification. Being engaged in the process of living like you’re headed somewhere. Pushing the limits of your intelligence, emotional depth, creativity, physical strength, kindness, love, and everything else that makes you you. “…To do all the characteristically human things well and from the right motives,” as Anthony Gottlieb describes it in The Dream of Reason. You see the world and yourself in the world, and there’s a powerful synergy and intelligibility.

Some days are awesome. Some days are shitty. But no matter what today feels like, we have to figure out how we’re going to be fully human in it. To flourish in it.

There is no flourishing pill. There are times when we need to grieve. To work through the hurt and brokenness. Or to work through confusion. Or to remind ourselves that we still can. These, and a million other life experiences, are “characteristically human things” to do as well as we can.

True happiness is far more than pleasurable sensation. It’s about lifelong flourishing. True happiness is a life well lived.

This Week in Upgrades: September 12

Monday, Monday. Let’s see what this week has in store. Hope you had a good weekend amidst the start of the NFL season, reflecting on 15 years after 9/11, and whatever else you may have been up to.

The past week was full of important happenings–and that’s in addition to the unfolding, depressing drama of the presidential election.

This was a fairly positive surprise: the Dakota Access Pipeline has been temporarily halted by the Department of Justice. “The recognition that the government may not have adequately taken tribes’ considerations into account is a significant achievement, but the decision by the Obama administration is far from definitive. In the meantime, the activists on the ground say they have no plans to move.” More work to do. Props to the activists.

This was not a good surprise: the most thorough study of ocean warming yet has some alarming findings. The oceans have been keeping the planet habitable, and they can’t take a whole lot more.

Tesla’s autopilot, “the best semi-autonomous system on the road today,” is upgrading in some crucial ways.

Yosemite National Park added 400 acres–the largest expansion there in 70 years. Wonderful!

Watch bacteria overcome antibiotics and turn into superbugs. Fascinating, yet terrifying.

Neuroscientists may have just identified the brain cells associated with schadenfreude. Why do we sometimes feel delight from other’s misfortune?

Babies are dumb so adults can be smarter.

Ever see floaters? A few visual disturbances are pretty common. Reassuring for my hypochondriac self.

A new drug has proven effective against one of the deadliest cancers without side effects. Immunotherapy findings like this are super promising.

Stay awesome.

 

This Week in Upgrades: August 29

Hey, hey! We’re at the start of another week. I’m still on a nature high after visiting the Grand Canyon this weekend. (In fact, I completely forgot to post this yesterday!)

Have you visited the Grand Canyon? Difficult to put the experience into words. It also happened to be the National Park Service centennial when we went, so it was quite the occasion. Pretty crazy that it has been around for 100 years. As beloved as the parks are, though, they are also threatened. It’s up to all of us to protect them for the next hundred years.

What else interesting happened over the last seven days?

The Hawaii Mars simulation ended Monday. Curious to see what they found out from this.

“Their hair fell out.” What kind of regulation should the FDA have over cosmetics? It’s not doing much right now.

The global coffee shortage has already begun. A future without good coffee would be a sad one. Just another reason to do whatever we can to minimize climate change.

Speaking of which, a group of scientists has moved to formally declare the current epoch the anthropocene. We’re officially changing the evolution of the planet in detrimental ways.

“A few milliseconds makes all the difference.” Charisma is largely a matter of thinking quickly. Do you run through options in your mind before you decide what to say and do next?

Please don’t drive slowly in the left lane. Saw way too much of this on our weekend road trip.

We tend to think that the present is much different than the past, but we’ve been asking the same fundamental questions for awhile now.

Have you heard the Millennial whoop? It seems to be in every other pop song.

Have an awesome week!

 

This Week In Upgrades: August 22

Hello, hello! Have you been missing awesome links on Mondays? I’ve sure missed sharing them. What a whirlwind of weeks. Made it through and feeling good now.

Can you believe we’re into the last days of August already? Man, is this year going by quickly. Let’s slow things down by taking stock of some worthwhile things on the web from this week.

The trailer for the feature-length version of Voyage of Time, narrated by Cate Blanchett, was released. Can’t tell you how excited I am to see both versions of this.

Fungi may wipe out all of our bananas. Monoculture is not good, you guys.

Werner Herzog’s documentary on the Internet, Lo and Behold, came out on Friday. Have you seen it?

July was likely the hottest month in human history. Like, at any point human beings have been on this planet. This, along with the insane fires and flooding, would suggest we’re officially in the first summer of climate change. The village of Shishmaref became the first US community to decide to relocate because of rising seas. They won’t be the last.

Seen CRISPR in the news? Gene editing will soon change our bodies and the future of humanity. Here’s a great explainer video.

Workplace suicides are increasing worldwide over the last 30 years. An incredibly tragic consequence of neoliberalism. What can we do about this?

The US Justice Department announced it is phasing out the use of private prisons. About time.

Ford is promising a mass-produced self-driving car by 2021. Uber is launching semi-autonomous Ford Fusions in Pittsburg in a few weeks.

If you love Parmesan cheese, you need to read this. Make sure you’re getting the real, good stuff!

The first few weeks of college can be the most dangerous. Some tips for freshmen and their parents to get through safe and sound.

Have you been hoping for “a FitBit for your brain?” I suppose it’s the logical continuation of the quantified self, but I’m not sure about this.

These images are not exactly what the naked eye sees, but light pollution is a serious problem. Artificially shining out all that night sky splendor.

The Navajo Nation has sued the EPA over the San Juan River mine spill. “Spring, which once symbolized the bringing of new life as many Navajo families planted their crops, now represents a looming threat as Spring runoff instead brings toxic metals to Navajo water and lands.”

You’ve never heard Beethoven like this. Crazy skills.

Have an excellent week!

What a Piece of Work is Man

Mobile Phone Video
sabelskaya/Bigstock.com

As if Benedict Cumberbatch wasn’t already cool enough, he’s now in the first performances for his version of Hamlet on stage. When tickets were made available last year, it became the fastest-selling production in British history. There’s only one problem: as soon as Cumberbatch begins to utter to be or not to be, a handful of people yank out their smartphones to try to record the scene. To what end?

To share as bragging proof that you were there? To turn into some kind of remixed or reworked media like a GIF? To rewatch over and over as a self-made souvenir?

Cumberbatch, for his part, is pleading for restraint. The Guardian posted a video of him on the street post-performance asking reporters to work their information-disseminating magic and get the word out. “…There’s nothing less supportive or enjoyable as an actor being onstage…it’s mortifying. And I can’t give you what I want to give you which is a live performance that you will remember, hopefully, in your minds and brains–whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent–rather than on your phones.”

What has happened to our sense of appreciation and capacity for enjoyment without capturing, posting, and hashtagging? It’s not enough to be at a thing: we have to record evidence of the thing, share the evidence of the thing, and replay the evidence of the thing again later–almost as if we were never even there and we need to prove to ourselves that we were.

Through the lens and microphone of our multifarious pocket technologies, we distance ourselves from what’s on the other side, and eliminate the possibility for the kind of memory our brains have developed to record in their own biological way: complex, emotional, sensory-rich; deep in story, context, and potential for recollection.

Have you ever been alerted by a smell that suddenly brought you back to a vivid moment earlier in life? Something that reminded you of that one day at your grandparents’ house, or that one concert with your high school friends, or that road trip with your lover? When the memory was formed, we were silent and still enough to knit together thousands of little strands of experience into something that we would remember in our minds and brains. Remember for a long time. Something that could transform who we are as a person. Something that would shape our future for the better by connecting us to the rich human experience we were in the midst of.

In a tech-saturated world, we have to put limitations on ourselves to maintain a healthy ability to appreciate what’s there right in front of us. To recognize skill and artistry. To observe beauty. To see truth embodied. To experience a transcendent moment. Perhaps even to feel a sense of healing and wholeness. If you think it’s ridiculous to get those things from standing still for an hour and letting the world wash over you, you just haven’t found the right thing yet. Let the great performers perform unimpeded and unfiltered–Benedict Cumberbatch, that musician you love, Mother Nature, and anyone else–and be transformed by moments and memories that will long outlive and exceed the likes you’d receive for cutting it into an oversimplified, shareable file.

This Week in Upgrades: June 27

Brain Faceted
eranicle/Bigstock.com

John Oliver on the absurdity of Internet trolling. Heartfelt and hilarious as usual. Vox

Just another reason to clean up the skies: air pollution is making your brain age faster. New York Times

A safer highway: Samsung develops a see-through truck by putting screens on the outside. Mashable

Pixar’s Inside Out brilliantly challenges our cultural dogma that we should all be happy all of the time. Indiewire

There are now more Americans who are obese than there are who are simply overweight. We’re better than this. LA Times

“If you make a typo or regret sending a message…” In case you missed it, Google’s Undo Send option for email went live this week. Google

Hawaii became the first state to change the smoking age to 21, and it’s not only because of cigarettes. The Verge

Disney has banned selfie sticks at all of its parks. BuzzFeed News

The Back to the Future 2 hoverboard dream will not die, and Lexus may have developed a functional prototype. Could we actually get one in 2015? Engadget

This Oglala Lakota chef is reviving traditional Native American cuisine, and it sounds delicious (and healthy!) “There should be Native American restaurants all over the nation that really show how diverse the United States is in culture and cuisine.” Grist