The internet is ruining my brain
And what I’m doing about it
I’m beginning to realize the effects that a decade of hardcore internet usage is having on my brain. I jokingly say to my friends, “I have the attention span of a four-year-old,” but the funny thing is I’m not kidding. My mind leaps and flits from one short “listacle” to another, and I can’t focus on a task for more than 5 minutes without having the impulse to click another tab or Google any random thought that pops into my head: “How do I make a Tom Collins?” “Who is Conan O’Brian’s wife?” These are very important questions that must be answered RIGHT NOW.
I love the internet, and I spend most of my waking hours in front of my computer. Luckily, I’m not alone. The average American spends 12 hours a day in front of a screen, up from 8 in 2009. I’m fully aware of the benefits it’s brought my life, my career and the way I communicate. But I have noticed that the internet is fundamentally changing the way my brain processes information.
Recently, I tried to re-read Walden, and I could barely comprehend his arguments. The writing was foreign and awkward to me; it was like wading through mud. It took me forever to get through the dense prose as my mind drifted with the desire to check my phone again and again. Reading it as a teenager wasn’t difficult at all. Had my brain really changed that much in a decade?
Apparently, it had. Just as the brain has the ability to rewire itself after a catastrophic injury, it also begins to rewire itself after just a couple of hours on the internet. In The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our Brains, author Nicholas Carr sites a study that proves just 5 hours of internet usage can begin to change the way our brains process information.
Scanning your Twitter feed requires more brain power than one would think. The cognitive load required to surf the internet is akin to:
“Trying to read a book while doing a crossword puzzle,” writes Carr. Moreover, the “load amplifies the distractedness we experience. When our brains are overtaxed, we find ‘distractions more distracting.’”
It explains how all these years of constant internet usage have left my brain feeling fragmented and anxious. The overwhelming distractions of my phone buzzing, chat pinging and Facebook updating are too much for my brain to handle, and I can’t process it all at once. As Matt Richtel reports in this 2010 New York Times article, heavy multitasking (particularly on the internet) can have long lasting effects:
“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. And scientists are discovering that even after the multitasking ends, fractured thinking and lack of focus persist.”
I have no problem with the internet or social media in general, but the challenge with any compulsion is that there is little choice in it. Just as an alcoholic finds it difficult to resist the drink, I have less and less choice about whether or not I check Facebook. In fact, I’m now neurotically wired to check Facebook.
To compensate, my fragmented brain employs even more technology. I’ve read a dozen productivity books (or started reading them anyway), installed countless android apps, and written copious cloud based to-do lists. Some of it actually is helpful. Some of it just left me feeling as fragmented and overwhelmed as ever.
So I asked myself, what are small behaviors I can engage in to slowly change my internet habits? Can I heal my mind with small changes or should I really just give up now and go live on an ashram?
I started clearly separating work and play time. As a freelancer, it’s very easy to have work bleed into evenings and weekends. It’s also easy to have my friends distract me on chat or Facebook when I’m in the middle of a work task. I started turning chat off at work and stopped checking my email while hanging with my friends and family. I even stopped listening to music while on the train to work. I find that I am much more present in my experiences as they’re happening to me, so I don’t have to relive them later on Facebook.
Leave the phone in the office when going to lunch. To me, there’s nothing sadder or more startup-y than being in line at the salad bar in SOMA and every single person has their face buried in their phone. Granted, I live in the tech capital of the world, but doesn’t anyone know how to just wait in line anymore? I’ve accepted that it’s ok to just awkwardly stand there.
Build in breaks. I installed a little break-taking app on Chrome (this one actually does help me). After 25 minutes of solid spreadsheet analysis, I spend 5 minutes tweeting or getting some tea. Studies show that building in breaks at specific times actually increase productivity. For me, it allows me to have some focused social media time without feeling guilty about it.
If a podcast or music are getting distracting, turn it off. Like most red-blooded Americans, I’m amazing at consuming media. I’m so good at it, that if I let it, it would be my full time job. I love listening to a good podcast or Spotify playlist while working, but I’ve learned that some work (like writing) require absolute silence or the active din of a coffee shop.
Turn the phone on silent and put it away. Having my phone on vibrate on my desk only ensures that I will check it every time another sale email rolls in. I started checking it every couple hours to answer texts or see if I had any missed calls, and I never miss much.
Don’t turn on the computer unless work is actually going to get done. Some nights when I get home my first impulse is to turn on my computer with the vague intention of getting some work done. In reality, I spend the hours before bed online shopping and tweeting. Not turning on my computer allows me to actually hang out with real live human beings and get to bed at a decent hour.
Meditate. Meditation has become the cure-all solution among the self-helpy Silicon Valley set (I’m including myself there), but don’t let that deter you. I’ve been practicing for 5 years, and while it doesn’t stop me from being compulsive, it does help me see my compulsions and let them pass. It also helps me cultivate more acceptance of the present moment so I don’t feel like I have to check my phone 10,000 times a day.
All these changes are just creating some boundaries between me and the technology. What I desire is more clarity and presence in whatever I’m doing. Whether it’s checking my twitter feed, writing a blog post, or spending time with friends, I would like to be there for the experience without feeling like I have to check my Twitter feed or texts every 5 minutes.
These weeks of subtle changes have not been able to entirely undo years of mental conditioning. On the days that I am disciplined, where I clearly delineate my work and play time, build in breaks and stick to them, and don’t turn on my computer after work hours, I am able to achieve more clarity and productivity. The next morning I feel more focused and ready for work.
Still I often find myself backsliding into cat video internet purgatory where I spend hours on my computer but nothing really gets done. To change my fragile neural pathways, I must dedicate as much time to fixing my brain as I do to zapping it with screen-based sensory experiences. It requires ongoing discipline, learning and re-learning new behaviors and habits that I’ve long forgotten (like reading a paper book). It might be a Herculean effort, but if I can achieve just a little bit of space between me and my obsession with the internet, it’ll be worth it.