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.

Making Relationships Last

Around Valentine’s Day last year, I wrote about the need to go beyond showing love on just a couple big days with big gestures if you want to be truly romantic. A thoughtful gift or a meal shared at a trendy restaurant on February 14th can be a wonderful thing. But there are a lot of hours and days through the rest of the year when there isn’t a holiday to celebrate and you create (or don’t) the love in the air. Turning romantic sparks into long-burning flames is what makes a relationship a lasting one.

OK, great. Sparks into flames. What are some ways you can do that? As someone who has been married for 7 years–and together for 8 years prior to that–I’ve learned a thing or two about keeping a relationship strong, fun, and new. Not perfect (you can ask my wife about the boneheaded things I’ve done). But lasting and growing.

Be really, really good at talking and listening to each other. It’s nearly impossible to over-communicate and be too good of a listener. Work toward being able to talk openly about everything. Yup, even that. (What did you just think of? Have you talked about it?)

Be really good at talking about things that are going well, and things that aren’t. Every couple argues. You’re going to have competing goals and desires, misunderstandings, and silly skirmishes about things like figuring out what to eat (You pick! No you pick!). You have to learn how to argue well. How to disagree honestly and patiently. How to maintain your own dignity and point of view, while doing everything you can to respect and understand theirs. Figure out what the healthy, mutually beneficial resolution is, and how you can get there together. Arguing well is about finding your way back together when you got miles apart. Not who has the best one-liners and Exhibits entered into the court to prove a point.

The rest of the time–when you’re not arguing (which is hopefully most of the time)–you have to be forthcoming about how you feel, what you plan to do today, how you can get errands and chores done together, and everything else that’s happening in your lives. Keep the conversation going back and forth all the time. If you frequently find yourselves on the couch or in bed quietly immersed in each of your phones, you’ve got some work to do.

Don’t let things become predictable and routine. You shouldn’t be exactly the same person today as you were to your mate yesterday. Learn and grow. And encourage your significant other to learn and grow, too. Do things that enable you to learn and grow together. Classes, vacations, documentaries, hanging out with new people, and other things that will cause you to stretch what you think and what you do. Things should never stay the same between the two of you for very long. You both should know and feel that the relationship is going somewhere. That you’re growing in the ways you want to individually, and growing closer together.

Do surprising little things each day to show your mate how important they are and how much you care about them. Notes and doodles, an inexpensive gift on a random afternoon, home-cooked meals, massages and other loving touch. Sometimes small, unexpected things can change the course of a whole day and how good you feel about each other.

Make sure you have shared values. Sometimes opposites attract. They balance each other out in just the right ways. But if you have completely antithetical outlooks on life and core values, you’re very likely going to arrive at an impasse and part ways eventually. Incompatible religious or political beliefs. Whether or not to have kids or how to raise them. A generally hopeful and optimistic perspective versus a mostly cynical and nihilistic one. Some values and beliefs can change over time or be accommodated. Others are deal-breakers. You and your mate need to know that what matters to each of you most is at least complementary–if not very similar.

Don’t keep score. It doesn’t really matter how much or how little your significant other has done for you today or this week. If you truly love them, you should be more concerned about their well-being than your own. If they truly love you, they should be more concerned about your well-being than their own. You may do all the chores this week. They might surprise you by doing all the chores next week (because they know things shouldn’t be predictable and routine 😉 ).

Your relationship is probably not going to last if you’re doing exactly enough to keep things 50-50. They did ten points worth of good relationship stuff, so I guess I’ll do ten points worth of relationship stuff. It’s definitely not going to last if you’re angling for 40-60 or even less. It’s not a relationship if only one person is doing the majority of it.

True, lasting relationships become a virtuous cycle of enjoyment and fulfillment when you trust that being selfless with each other will meet each of your needs and desires. You give them your honesty, attention, time, patience, creativity, benefit of the doubt, generosity, faithfulness, and the rest of you, and trust that they’ll give you the same.

If you can talk and listen well; learn, grow, and surprise a little everyday; make sure you share what matters most; and don’t keep score; your relationship will burn with more and more heat. And you’ll know that your future together will be even brighter.

Boundaries and Spaces

Some of the things you can’t control…

How long you have to wait at the DMV. The weather. Where Earth is in the universe. If your favorite team wins the championship this year. Sunday night is the end of the weekend. Getting laid off. Who your parents and siblings are. Heartache is painful. Some drunks decide to drive. Humans can’t spread their arms and fly. Meritocracy is mostly a fiction. People need oxygen, water, and food (and many other things) to survive. You have to actually do the chores for things to be clean. Time travel is probably impossible. Others misunderstand and judge you. The typical lifespan is 71 years.

These are the boundaries of life. The things that are out of your hands and constrain who you are and what you can do. You might wish things were different. Or that you could have superpowers to overcome limits. But there’s little, if anything, you can do to change and control these things.

Some of the things you can control…

What food you eat. Who you ask out on a date. Where and when you take vacations. How you exercise. What time you go to sleep. How much of your income you save. If you play it safe or take a risk. Your outlook for the future. The city you make your home. Being better informed. Caring about what other people think of you. Your attachment to your phone. Learning new things. How you treat strangers and vulnerable human beings. The time you spend with the people you love.

These are the spaces. The undetermined, pliable things you can largely build and shape as you want. To do like this or like that. To prioritize or ignore. To do the same way for a while, or evaluate and change as you go.

A lot of being able to live well comes down to understanding the things you can’t control and the things you can. The things that guide and limit our path, and the things that we can do the way we want.

We don’t have superpowers. We’re not powerless. We are people. We are both limited and full of potential. Understand, explore, try. Know what shapes you and what you can shape.

Find your place in the boundaries and spaces.