So. Remember that old anti-drug television commercial that shouted out: Here’s your brain on drugs — then showed an egg sunny-side up, sizzling in a frying pan?
Well, these days, the sizzler is the internet, as in uber-connection. And the result is less like fried eggs than a scramble, according to a piece in the Sunday New York Times, which said:
Scientists say juggling e-mail, phone calls and other incoming information can change how people think and behave. They say our ability to focus is being undermined by bursts of information.
These play to a primitive impulse to respond to immediate opportunities and threats. The stimulation provokes excitement — a dopamine squirt — that researchers say can be addictive. In its absence, people feel bored.
The resulting distractions can have deadly consequences, as when cellphone-wielding drivers and train engineers cause wrecks. And for millions of people like Mr. Campbell, these urges can inflict nicks and cuts on creativity and deep thought, interrupting work and family life.
While many people say multitasking makes them more productive, research shows otherwise. Heavy multitaskers actually have more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information, scientists say, and they experience more stress.
No shit. All of this dependence on short-term bursts of information screws with our focus and our ability to process in the long term. Hello: decision making? Actual conversation? (Is that a cell phone in your pocket or are you just bored to see me?) Some folks call it acquired ADHD. All of which brings to mind one of our posts from last November (hence the Thanksgiving reference), which brings the same point to bear. So, this being the summer rerun season, we thought we’d replay it here:
There is a point here, I promise. But first, here’s the scene. My desk, at work. A wobbly stack of books, papers and files, some dating back to last spring. A to-do list, also written last spring. On the other side of my mousepad, a pile of resumes for the letters of rec I need to write. On my computer, some 200 emails that at least have to be opened.
Plus the steady buzz of folks, either in the hall, or in my office. Kinda like a roving cocktail party, but without the booze. This is not necessarily a good thing. The latter, I mean.
My home office, not much better. At least 100 unread emails. My desk is cleaner — today — but you still never know what you’ll find. A friend once described my work-at-home digs as a junk drawer. At times, the description is apt.
On Tuesday I got up early, graded papers, scanned two newspapers, got ready for school, found and paid my Macy’s bill while my Cheerios got soggy, blew out the door and off to work, taught some classes, and met with a bunch of students who have the end-of-quarter heebie-jeebies. (They’re contagious).
Last week, we hosted a party to celebrate a friend’s engagement. Next week is Thanksgiving (Yikes! I forgot to order the turkey). It’s my husband’s and son-in-law’s birthdays. Shannon and I are knee-deep in writing this book. And this blog. My hair is stringy and I’m low on clean clothes. So here I am.
Don’t get me wrong. I fully realize that those balls I’ve got in the air mark me as a lucky woman. Nonetheless, I’m somewhat breathless just itemizing all this. I’m frazzled. Distracted. And probably like you, just a little bit crazed: Too much going on, going on all at once.
Maybe it was ever so. But now, add this. The San Francisco Chronicle has reported on some new studies on the way that techno-stimulation — texts, tweets, IMs, Facebook, news alerts, the list goes on — has led to a new form of attention deficit disorder. We’re always on. Uber-connected. Addicted to short bursts of constant information. And despite our best intentions, we get sucked in. All of which, experts say, impacts our ability to analyze. From the story:
“The more we become used to just sound bites and tweets,” [Dr. Elias Aboujaoude, director of Stanford University’s Impulse Control Disorders Clinic at Stanford University] said, “the less patient we will be with more complex, more meaningful information. And I do think we might lose the ability to analyze things with any depth and nuance. Like any skill, if you don’t use it, you lose it.”
Dr. John Ratey, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, uses the term “acquired attention deficit disorder” to describe the way technology is rewiring the modern brain.
I don’t know about you, but I really don’t need to know what Suzy from Ohio is doing every five minutes. And yet. There’s the seduction of the buzz, the flash. She has me at beep-beep.
Which brings me belatedly to my point: Is all this stuff, this stimulation, this juggling, cluttering up our already cluttered brains to the point where we are not only overwhelmed — but chronically undecided?
The science suggests the answer is yes. Shannon wrote earlier on our blog about the Paradox of Choice, about how the more choices that confront us, the less likely we are to make one — or to be happy with it when we do. There’s the iconic jam study, where shoppers confronted with 24 jars of jam — versus just six — walked away empty handed. And the pivotal Magical Number Seven study, which dates back to the 1950s, that found that the human brain has trouble processing more than seven items at a time. The study was the basis for similar research in 1999 by Stanford Marketing Professor Baba Shiv, then an assistant professor at University of Iowa. He sent two groups off to memorize a series of numbers. One group had to memorize three. The other, seven. At the end of the task, the groups were given their choice of a treat: gooey chocolate cake or fruit salad. The three digit group overwhelmingly chose fruit. The seven digit group — cake. The point? Overwhelmed with the memory task, the rational brain of the seven-digit folks begged off and let the emotional side take over.
Shannon wrote recently about Zen and art of multi-tasking where, really, what we need to do when we drink tea –is to just drink tea. I wrote about the need to just play cards. Put all of this together and I think you find that maybe, for our own mental health, not to mention our ability to make decisions, we need to turn down the chatter.
Sixties guru Timothy Leary (he of LSD fame) once exhorted the youth of the day to “turn on, tune in, drop out.” I’m thinking it’s time to flip the switch: Turn off, tune out, drop in.
But wait. Did that make the slightest bit of sense? Not sure. I’m off to find some chocolate cake.