Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

My Boring Brain

I've always been a terrible multitasker. I can't drink a bottle of Snapple and walk across the kitchen floor without tripping over my feet. This was a huge problem when I started working in San Francisco during the dot-com boom, when many of my colleagues could talk on the phone, edit a story, send an email and answer my question all at once. Some people still do that and tweet and IM as well. Amazing.

I just assumed I was hopelessly old school with my single-minded ways, missing train stops while I'm reading and walking into light poles while talking on my cell phone. For a while it looked like web surfing would change my ways as I bounced from site to site. But after 10 minutes I'd get tired and cranky with all that information at my fingertips and go find a nice book.

But today I read a May 24 Wired article called "The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains." It's been sitting in my inbox for more than two months, waiting for me to read it. That's my lastest strategy to manage the web; I'm always finding interesting articles to read while surfing, but that doesn't mean I want to bring everything to a screaming halt and read one article for 10 minutes. So I send myself an email with the link and it sits there until I'm ready to truly read and think about it.

It works pretty well. Often I'll start an interesting article or blog post or comment thread and I find myself impatient and skimming, not because the information isn't interesting, but because I'm not in the right frame of mind to read it. I need to check my work email or Benny's school website or reserve a car right then. I'm not prepared for the latest Muni weirdness or 65th anniversary of the atom bomb.

So, back to that Wired article. See, I'm not easily deflected from point (sometimes to Ron's dismay). A UCLA professor discovered that experienced web surfers developed distinctive neural pathways due to their Internet use. He also found that if novice web users spent six days surfing the web, the Internet use rewired their brains too. At first everyone cheered: Hey, Google makes us smart! But, said the UCLA guy, more brain activity doesn't mean better brain activity.

Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, and educators point to the same conclusion: When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain.

When schools started bringing in computers, everyone thought all those documents with hyperlinks would increase learning. But the work involved in navigating all the different documents disrupts concentration and weakens comprehension. That makes sense to me: who can read a Wikepedia article straight through?

The article goes on:

A 2007 scholarly review of hypertext experiments concluded that jumping between digital documents impedes understanding. And if links are bad for concentration and comprehension, it shouldn’t be surprising that more recent research suggests that links surrounded by images, videos, and advertisements could be even worse.

I totally agree. I'm reduced to clicking on the print-only version of long articles just so I can read them without being distracted. Sometimes I print them out. The article also points to constant computer distractions such as those little envelope icons that pop up on your desktop. Yes, you're busy reading my blog post but look! You have an email! Are you going to look at it? Look! Someone sent you a tweet? Don't you want to know what it says? Yeah, it's probably trivial, but it's new, it's compelling, and it distracting you RIGHT NOW.

Finally, the article aims a long, pointing finger at those ultra-efficient multitaskers:

Last year, researchers at Stanford ... gave a battery of cognitive tests to a group of heavy media multitaskers as well as a group of relatively light ones. They discovered that the heavy multitaskers were much more easily distracted, had significantly less control over their working memory, and were generally much less able to concentrate on a task. Intensive multitaskers are “suckers for irrelevancy,” says Clifford Nass, one professor who did the research. “Everything distracts them.” Merzenich offers an even bleaker assessment: As we multitask online, we are “training our brains to pay attention to the crap.”

This society seems to value the ability to skim rather than read, a quick glance rather than a long look. Is reading comprehension a lost art? I just read a blog post on the Consumerist titled "I Can't Afford Cable Anymore. How Can I Revive My Analog TV?" One commenter said:

Nowhere does she say her TV is analog. Without the most basic information such as her TV model and specific hookup needs, it is next to impossible to give the needed information.

To which another commenter said:

Nowhere except in the headline of the article.

Reading is hard!

So what can we do? Well, if you've read this whole blog post, you're obviously pretty good at staying on task. Here's what I do so I'm not overwhelmed when I'm web surfing:

- I make a conscious effort not to get distracted. When I went to to get the above example just now, it was tempting to click on the post about the guy who called 911 to get a drive to the liquor store, the couple who named their baby Adolph Hitler and the latest vile behavior by Chase. I read this blog about every other day, so I reminded myself that the post about Dell's imaginary shipping time trap isn't going anywhere. Doesn't always work, but I try.

- Don't leave the original site you're working with. When I'm on wikepedia, for example, I keep a window of the original article on my desktop, so that even if I'm clicking madly on hyerlinks, the main article is still the focus and I don't end up wandering in new territory. I always come back.

- If I hit an interesting article or blog or page, I email myself the link so I can come back to it later. That way my main goal isn't derailed.

As you can obviously tell, I like to think things through. At my favorite lunch buffet, I tend to pile up a few types of food when others are scooping up a little bit of everything. I miss out on some interesting food that way, but who says I have to take advantage of every opportunity out there? Sometimes I just want to eat lunch.