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.

Wherever You Start, It Ends Up in the Same Place

I had a little free time the other day, and I happened upon a very interesting interview with Andrew Zimmern. He’s perhaps best known for his show Bizarre Foods and some of the seemingly strange things he’s eaten on camera for it. The whole conversation is well worth a listen.

It was especially intriguing and thought-provoking because, ostensibly, this is an interview for a food website, with a former chef and current food television host, containing his thoughts on this or that bit of the current state of food. And yet, as the interview goes along, the conversation becomes about much more than just the latest ingredient fad or buzziest restaurant. It goes deeper into economics, creativity, globalization, class, history, relationships, politics, and more.

To be sure, the interview is not a one-hour retelling of all of human history through the lens of food. And it’s certainly not the first or even the best example of going beyond its immediate subject matter in a profound way. But I find it immensely fascinating and illuminating that an interview that starts out about one thing–food–quickly and regularly goes deep into many other things.

We live in a world that is incredibly specialized–perhaps even too specialized. We don’t just have athletes, doctors, and professors. We have wide receivers and punters; brain surgeons and orthopedic surgeons; professors of Western religions and professors of metaethics. Our entry points into the world–our personal areas of interest and expertise–are almost as numerous and unique as the number of people on this planet.

We each step out into the world and view it predominantly through the shaping and interpretive framework of those interests or fields of expertise. Andrew Zimmern’s entry point is food, and he can say and explain things about food and food culture that few others can. That alone makes for a compelling conversation. Food is awesome. Who doesn’t love finding out interesting things about it?

But as his Eater interview shows, you can’t really talk about food without talking about money and the exchange of value, globalization, human creativity, relationships, social structure, and the rest. Wherever we start, things eventually end up in the same place.

Where they end up is the core, essential humanity that exists behind every profession and area of interest. They end up at the heart of every person’s intentions, understanding, and experience.

You can start talking to an athlete about their career, their take on their sport, the business dealings of whatever league they’re in, their fan base, and the like. And sooner or later, things will either briefly or extensively broaden to dreams fulfilled and unfulfilled; the power of mentorship, teamwork, and dedicated effort; the strength and fragility of the human body, and dealing with the inevitability of physical decline and retirement.

You can start talking to a physician about the curiosities and intricacies of their medical expertise. And sooner or later, things will briefly or extensively broaden to the struggles of their work-life balance; the power and pride of healing; the agony and frustration of failed treatments and incurability; the daily encounters with patients at different stages of birth, life, and death, and supporting each person’s health to maximize their enjoyable time on earth.

You can start talking to a professor about the social construction of religion or morality in modern society. And sooner or later, things will briefly or extensively broaden to the nature of belief and one’s own worldview; what’s right and wrong in the world–and what to do about it; the finitude of life and how to live it; and if there’s more to all of this than what we can observe.

Wherever you start, it eventually ends up in the same place.

Not in every single interaction. And not always for an extended period or in great depth. But if there is enough time and openness, things will eventually arrive at the universally human that undergirds everything else.

So the next time you listen to a podcast, or watch a news segment or sports match, or read a book, or talk with a doctor, co-worker, lawyer, or anyone else–watch and listen for the way things start to veer toward the universally human. And think about how that humanity is acknowledged, or supported, or suppressed, or thwarted, or celebrated by the entry point you started from (food, sports, medicine, philosophy, etc.).

To ask just a few:

How should we feel about a fish that’s essentially commonplace bait in Namibia but an expensive seafood plate in fancy urban restaurants? 

What should be done about the head trauma NFL players experience and what that entails for their well-being later in life? 

Why are issues of religion so often plagued by othering and scapegoating, anti-intellectualism, and hypocrisy?

Everything is connected to everything else. Food to politics. Sports to relationships. Academia to meaning. Our conversations begin with each person seeing the world from a slightly different angle. We’ve separated things out in thorough specialization, but really it’s all meant to fit together. As we take time with others, with various interests and expertise, we see more clearly the breadth and depth of our shared humanity. And the better we see our universality, the better we can pursue the common good together from the entry point that intrigues each of us most.

 

How to Adult: Staying Informed

With the amount of time we’re all spending online, you’d think it would be basically inevitable that we’re well-informed about what’s going on in the world. Constant connection, theoretically, should lead to awareness.

And that’s true some of the time. Major events kind of pop up everywhere. The horrific terrorist attacks in Paris in November, for example, appeared on everything from entertainment shows like Extra to The Economist to friends’ grieving Facebook posts. There was reflection and mourning across nearly every platform.

But most current events do not have such a sudden impact across the world. They burn slower or smaller, and require deliberate attention to notice them and follow their progression.

Can you name all of the presidential candidates still running? Could you quickly summarize the situation in Syria and the migration crisis to a friend? Do you know what the Zika virus is and who it’s affecting? Can you articulate how climate change is disproportionately impacting poor people? If you nailed all of these, give yourself a pat on the back.

For the rest of us, it’s not entirely obvious what’s happening in the world and how to stay in-the-know.

Traditional news media–like the nightly news on television or an editorial in a newspaper–do not have the audiences they once commanded. When is the last time you watched or read one of these?

Even a news pillar like the New York Timeswhich has a successful digital version to go with its long-running print newspaper, seems to be an afterthought to media providers geared for more pop culture-savvy viewers: BuzzFeed, Mashableand others.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. There are days when we would rather think about how delicious guacamole onion rings must be, or how adorable baby polar bears are, than the weightier things going on.

And with the surplus of content and creators, there are voices, perspectives, and issues at the forefront that never have before. This is awesome.

The potential to become more aware has absolutely been unlocked by our connectivity. But we have to actually do a little work to get there. Food porn and cute animals can crowd out the more profound stuff.

So how can you stay well-informed? Here are a few suggestions:

(1) Find some hard news sources that don’t bore you to death. You don’t have to watch C-SPAN unless you want to watch C-SPAN. But Facebook and Twitter can’t be anyone’s only entry point to current events.

A few that I follow regularly are NBC News (nationally and in the Los Angeles area), The Guardian, and NPR. You might also consider following a source like The Associated Press on Twitter for significant breaking stories. Make sure you’re getting a good balance of things happening locally in your own city and country, and world news much farther away.

(2) Cultivate a breadth of commentary about current events. You’re looking for sources that go beyond outlining the basic facts (that’s what the things in (1) are for), to discuss their context and meaning. Don’t just gravitate to voices you agree with. Find ones that challenge or even contradict your worldview and beliefs. Choices for these are nearly endless. Some that I look at regularly are: The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, Gawker and Gizmodo, Arts & Letters Daily, and SlateYou’ll find your go-tos in no time.

3. Go Deeper than Perceptions with current events. Question easy narratives and simple labels to see if there’s more going on below the surface. Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t. Don’t be a conspiracy theorist. But oftentimes there’s more to the story than what’s being presented to you. After journalists and content creators have done their work, this is your chance to reflect on what you took away from what happened and how that fits into the context of the world as you understand it.

4. When you’ve digested it all yourself, talk about it with other people. Conversation is the way to shared awareness and understanding. When you bring it up, it might be the first time someone else has heard about it. Or they may have a completely different perspective than you that you should patiently listen to and consider. We’re all in this together, and we should all be talking about what’s happening around us and what we’re going to do about it.

Do these seem like things you can do on a regular basis? Do you already do them? Are there other habits you think are important for staying informed week-to-week?

An essential part of finding your way as an adult is knowing what’s going on in the broader society around you. You start to figure out how you fit into our complexly interconnected world, what people and forces are shaping that world today, and what you can do to make a difference. Staying informed is necessary. The world would be a more interesting and better place if we all knew a little more about what’s happening in it. And now you know some good places to start.