Your brain on technology

Posted in Duff 'n Stuff

Duff ’n Stuff, Feb. 5, 2013

In the end, it’s my guess that it’s the most authentic experiences we have that will feed our best ideas and add to the sweetest of our memories.

By authentic I mean those that happen away from screens. I may be wrong about this, but I’ve been having lots of conversations lately about “that bastard technology!” and what a pain in the proverbial ass it is sometimes.

My enlightened friends (of which I’m proud to say there are many) will often refer to their smart phones, computers and televisions, etc. as having wrangled them into some kind of strange web of compulsion; an unexpected addiction. (Damn that “Downton Abbey!”)

Those of us who may have never experienced addiction problems in the past might presently, in this digital age, find ourselves trying to combat these appetites with emergency plunges into activities of yore. An excursion perhaps to more natural surroundings, with people and land and animals, maybe, or where food is being eaten around a table with people who one can actually talk to and see, other than in an Instagram photo on a newsfeed.

I recently saw a “Frontline” 2010 episode titled “Digital Nation, Life on the Virtual Frontier.”  The episode is a little old, but still pertinent. It was about how all the screens many of us have constantly in front of our faces are changing the way our brains work. That’s probably not news. But what was surprising to me was data that suggested that “multi-tasking,”  that quality that has been the greatly touted skill of many a resume, is not all that it’s cracked up to be. As it turns out, brain scans show that the best multi-taskers, who in this particular case were M.I.T. college students shown texting, “chatting,” posting to Facebook, Tweeting and emailing all while sitting in a lecture and taking notes for what looked like a difficult class, happen to stink at being able to follow through on one thought or idea to its end.

Who knew? I always thought the ability to multi-task was what every company wanted in an employee. Turns out that the digital nation extreme multi-taskers are missing something and the scans of their brains reveal the truth of that. Will students even be able to read a book in its entirety in the future? These students spoke about using Cliff Notes and bits of information gleaned from the web to get the minimum literary input needed to past tests. They actually didn’t want to read a book; had no real interest in reading. I find that extraordinary, but not in a good way.

Geez. What about relaxing with a good book?

Lately, I’ve been enjoying a collection of essays in “Disquiet Please: More Humor Writing from The New Yorker,” edited by David Remnick and Henry Finder.

Since its birth in 1925, The New Yorker has always been a good place to go to for good writing, especially when it comes to humor, and this collection not only includes such stalwarts as E.B. White and James Thurber, but puts a special focus on the latest generation of literary cut-ups — including Christopher Buckley, Ian Frazier, Garrison Keillor, Steve Martin, Susan Orlean, David Sedaris, Calvin Trillin, and others. A lot of these entries are laugh-out-loud funny and a completely enjoyable reading experience for me. The essayists are a breed that we might never see again, I think as I read them. Will the multi-tasking, younger generation coming up ever be able to follow through enough to write a very funny story? Will this kind of writing eventually just fall away? What about novels? What will become of the world?

Hugo Lindgren, the editor of the New York Times Magazine, wrote this very interesting piece on all those brilliant ideas we all have that never come to fruition. He titled it, “Be Wrong as Fast as You Can,” which I love because it supports the idea that we all need to make mistakes and follow through on those daydreams if we’re going to find out what it is we are meant to do in the world. Lindgren has hit upon something I think the extreme multi-taskers might do well to heed. He writes:

I know that the next brilliant brainstorm is never going to be the one that will just write itself, any more than the last one did. Ideas, in a sense, are overrated. Of course, you need good ones, but at this point in our supersaturated culture, precious few are so novel that nobody else has ever thought of them before. It’s really about where you take the idea, and how committed you are to solving the endless problems that come up in the execution.

There it is again. It’s all about where you take the idea. The follow through is the thing and if we can somehow steer our children away from the incessant stream of short, sharp distractions that don’t allow any single thought or good idea to be carried through to fruition, then we will do them a great service. And, I know, it’s not only them, it’s us too.

From the heart,

Patricia Duff


Patricia Duff is an award-winning journalist whose most recent kudos include several wins in the past five years of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association competition.

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