Monday, June 07, 2010

Too Much Internet Can Ruin Your Ability to Focus on Other .. .Oooo, a New Twitter Alert

I've been noticing this myself, so it was both reassuring and distressing to read in the Times today how spending too much time online can impact your ability to focus. And we're not talking spending days in your basement playing Warcraft, but more like simply trying to use the social networks and online tools to do your regular job. In other words, simply living in the 21st Century:
In 2008, people consumed three times as much information each day as they did in 1960. And they are constantly shifting their attention. Computer users at work change windows or check e-mail or other programs nearly 37 times an hour, new research shows.

The nonstop interactivity is one of the most significant shifts ever in the human environment, said Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco.

“We are exposing our brains to an environment and asking them to do things we weren’t necessarily evolved to do,” he said. “We know already there are consequences.”

Those consequences, apparently...

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 ... these urges can inflict nicks and cuts on creativity and deep thought, interrupting work and family life. [emphasis mine]

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.

OK, so like, I already pray for Ritalin to fall like manna from heaven (or at least to be added to our water supply like Florine) so noticeable is my inability to focus like I used to (I've attributed it to a busy lifestyle, or age, or the repercussions of too many cocktails), but what to do? Stop blogging? Delete my Facebook account? Switch back to a phone that doesn't receive email and simply let my contacts know that after 6:00 their messages won't be seen until the next morning?

That might not make much difference, actually:
[S]cientists are discovering that even after the multitasking ends, fractured thinking and lack of focus persist.
I know...someone needs to invent a new website that emails me prompts to remember to focus!

Interestingly, the research doesn't suggest a cold-turkey approach, but merely disciplined consumption:
“The technology is rewiring our brains,” said Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse and one of the world’s leading brain scientists. She and other researchers compare the lure of digital stimulation less to that of drugs and alcohol than to food and sex, which are essential but counterproductive in excess.
The article looks at a wide range of impacts on users' lives (concluding mostly that such technology is driving us apart), but I wanted to focus (if I can!) on why this would seem to be important for the arts. Again, the researchers claim that these habits "can inflict nicks and cuts on creativity and deep thought." Of course the least concrete word in that statement is "can." Does that mean that for some folks these habits do not impact their creativity or deep thought? Do they possibly even increase creativity or deep thought for some people?

We attended an info-party last week hosted by Boyd Level for the San Jose-based, but becoming global "a
rt and technology network," ZERO1, whose primary public activity is the 01SJ Biennial, but they're also supporting many other smaller projects as well. One of the projects discussed at the event was an upcoming multimedia, interactive piece called Plug-in-Play designed my members of the Interaction Lab at Rockwell Group. Rather than suggesting the technology we're embracing necessarily will drive us apart, this project speculates on what it can connect us:
Plug-in-Play represents a playground of ideas related to how we engage our urban environments. By taking a number of objects –some existing and some placed – in San Jose City Hall Plaza and connecting them to the building via oversized theatrical plugs, we suggest a new type of environment where social interactions, citizenship, and personal activities are more dynamically reflected. Using a projected environment on the facade of the City Hall we are able to display both physical and virtual activity in the plaza. The resulting effect is an attempt to create a more accurate representation of the vitality and complexity of our urban environments.
I would tend to agree that the best chance for enduring, if not thriving in, the "vitality and complexity" of the 21st Century is to open our minds to a wider range of interconnectivity, not over-react and entirely unplug so we can live like pioneers again. It's not surprising that we're struggling to find the right balance between online and offline life. It's all very new. And so new etiquette and best practices needs to be developed to go along with the new reality. If we can only focus on those efforts long enough between Tweets...

UPDATE: Joerg Colberg kindly points us to this earlier article on the same focus-shattering impact of the web.

UPDATE 2: Apparently this topic is all over the place. But not everyone agrees. [links via C-Monster].

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18 Comments:

Blogger LG said...

The saying goes, "Everything in moderation." Also, I am just tickled that you know of the entire afternoons I and others have spent conquering virtual baddies in Wow. Ha, or w00t!

6/07/2010 08:55:00 AM  
Blogger Katherine Tyrrell said...

I had a real shock when I realised that my handwriting had deteriorated after too much use of a keyboard. Plus when required to write longhand I find I'm completely flummoxed by my inability to go back and rewrite and move words around which I can do when typing

That's the way I know my brain has definitely been rewired due to use of a computer.

There are bonuses to the Internet though. We can now access much more in terms of visual images - and be influenced by it. No more needing to buy books or visit libraries to see how an artist painted. We can see exhibitions in museums all round the world - so long as the gallery does the decent thing and puts the work online in a virtual exhibition as well.

However could the cacophany of visual images alongside all those emails, tweets etc also lead to difficulty in finding your own way of seeing and your own style of art?

Probably - would be my guess. Not least because they are a thief of time.

6/07/2010 09:01:00 AM  
Blogger jec said...

I've known this for some time. I've been saying the internet is making me ADD (only half-jokingly). I noticed a while back that it was becoming hard for me to really concentrate on something -- a really disturbing realization.

It's disturbing but also fascinating how computers are changing the way our mind works.

6/07/2010 09:32:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"These urges can inflict nicks and cuts on creativity and deep thought, interrupting work and family life."

The solution: Go spend more time in your studio! I find it works wonders for maintaining deep thought and focus, and is a good counter to the pace of daily life.

I have to admit, though, when spending time in my studio means being on the computer, it is hard not to check my email, facebook, blogs, etc. before getting to work, and then suddenly realize that I have wasted an hour or more not working.

Although I often wonder which makes it harder for me to sustain focus: media technology, or 2 small kids running around like madmen? I vote for the latter. Hands down, kids are still way more distracting (and moms have been dealing with that for eons...)

Saskia

6/07/2010 09:37:00 AM  
Anonymous Gam said...

All the way back to Socrates and the expression of concern for the dangers of the new technology called writing and its potential impact on human memory and the art of story telling epics, philosophers from Innis to McLuhan among others, have demonstrated the inevitably of technologies impact on how we interact with the world and so how we know of the world and so change unconsciously how we understand the world. (there is a beautiful Chinese story concerning this – a water hole and a laborer)

The real impact here in technologies shifting of our paradigms of knowing, is the potential impact for art concerning technologies aspect of augmented reality. As much as I pine to exploit the possibilities, the fact remains, in a world where our reality is a flux of merged realities, arts functioning via the temporary and voluntary suspension of a reality is put in peril. If we have no grounded reality, if it is already suspended, then art risks moving into the territory of dreams and revelry instead of being grounded in insights (emotional or logical). Whereas throughout its history art has always allowed us to “try out” other reality’s permitting us to see how ours has become without our realization, all of that was based upon a return to a grounded reality. In our augmented reality of today and tomorrow, we may no longer have a grounded reality to return to. I really worry for arts future and in consequence our society’s if we can no longer benefit from what art has always offered us.

Art may no longer be able to allow us to see the impact of a given technology on our ways of knowing. In may no longer be able to show us who we have become or may become if we so choose.

6/07/2010 09:46:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

Yesterday I posted these three links on my FB page:
#1 How Has The Internet Changed The Way You Think? from Edge.org

#2 Does the Internet Make You Dumber? from WSJ.

#3 Does the Internet Make You Smarter? from WSJ.

The one most commented on was #2 'Dumber'. The most interesting is #1 which is a collection of 172 responses by an array of world-class scientists, artists, and creative thinkers.

6/07/2010 09:52:00 AM  
Anonymous John Legweak said...

Anonymous (Saskia), interesting comment about taking care of little kids. My wife totally believes the research that says that women are better at multitasking than men. (Actually, she puts it more strongly than that.) I can easily imagine an evolutionary basis for this, with women’s need to take care of children playing a central role.

Re paradigm shift, the one I have seen as a life-long knowledge worker is the shift from actually knowing things to knowing how to find the information you need when you need it. It enables you to be aware of and easily access much more information, but it greatly reduces your ability to mull over what you know and synthesize real, deep, understanding.

I remember that back before the web people talked a lot about how email was ruining worker’s productivity. Microsoft, which was the Google of its age and did a lot with its Exchange and Office suite to increase the role of email in organizations, had its own rule, at least for a while, that its workers had to be off email for, like, a three hour period each day. I think if people would follow the same rule for the web it would help them a lot with the distraction thing. I know it would help me, if I could only do it.

6/07/2010 11:31:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

What are all those people doing online?

6/07/2010 12:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

There's too many facets to intelligence to decide that internet affects all of intelligence in one negative or positive way.


Focus: I think this depends on personality. It's surprising if someone reads each email they receive and give time to reply to them (kudos to these superhumans). Most people cherry-pick what they read and who they reply to. As they do on Twitter.

People don't really know what intelligence covers anymore.
They trust credentials and followups. If you can solve a great
mathematical problem in a flash, you're just a geek. If you can
exquisetely insult someone, you're a genius.

Cedric C

6/07/2010 12:42:00 PM  
Anonymous John Legweak said...

George, thanks for reminding us. The internet has destroyed our intelligence AND ruined our sex lives. ;)

6/07/2010 12:50:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

John-
I've also heard that women are better multitaskers, but I never thought I was one of them.
FWIW, I scored 100% w/ 2 distractions and 92% w/ 6 distractions on the focus test on the NYT, but didn't even finish the how fast are you able to switch focus test because I just couldn't handle it. Too much time in the studio, not enough on the internet, perhaps? or maybe, learned to focus even with kids trying desperately to switch my attention onto every their every whim.
Saskia

6/07/2010 05:24:00 PM  
Anonymous John Legweak said...

Saskia, I know what my wife would say, which is that women have too many real life issues to deal with to worry very much (or at all) about Internet quizzes. The real test is, can you paint and feed the kids and make a hotel reservation and get a wrong charge taken off your credit card statement at the same time. :)

6/07/2010 10:15:00 PM  
Blogger Iris said...

Here's some old fashioned multi-tasking even without the internet:

multitasking for artists

6/07/2010 11:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

John,
Ha, good point. and isn't it ironic that the Times had an internet quiz to test focus attached to an article about how the internet makes us lack focus?

I do manage to paint and feed the kids and do all other sorts of things at the same time, but I find it extremely challenging in terms of making art & really feel that because of it, I end up starting the art over and over again instead of moving deeper into it as I work. But I suppose my ability to focus amidst chaos is getting better.
And really, my choices for the time being are either to work in this way, or not work at all. I tried the latter, and that is even worse-- then all the other stuff really does make me crazy.
Saskia

6/08/2010 09:12:00 AM  
Blogger Brent said...

Keeping in mind, of course, that this "rewiring" is an easily reversed process. Takes a couple of months and you are a deep calm (slow) thinker again, provided a conducive environment exists. Not that you will ever need to, frankly, because you would be adapted to a world that doesn't exist anymore.

Nostalgia is the term for this kind of thinking. I usually shoot a Thomas Wolfe quote I have bookmarked on my smartphone. LOL.

6/08/2010 09:54:00 AM  
Blogger ellen yustas k. gottlieb said...

interaction with people through internet proved to be interesting very thing. It even can lead to unexpected developments, like completely new directions to think, for example new plots for novel writing, new theories on art. This what I know from personal experience. Nevertheless internet enslaves you, it is more subtle then other addictions, but still potent. With finding interesting things outside cyber you can reduce time, even completely forget you ever were so deep into it. But I am forever greatful to Internet, it gave me more then it took, I think (if I can)

6/08/2010 10:32:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

@Brent, if there is true rewiring in the brain then it is not reversible in a couple of months.

New biological connections between neurons grow and/or existing ones are strengthened. If they aren't used later, over time they may become less important but they are still there.

I don't think it matters much, we are the sum of what we think about, internet or not.

6/08/2010 12:09:00 PM  
Anonymous Michael Brown said...

All the tools that are supposed to help us multi-task and juggle things better, I feel end up making us even more scattered.

I remember reading criticism about the whole world of closet organizers...and that there is a whole section of the IKEA catalogue/website that is devoted to organizing space. The author suggested that often the best step is just to start throwing stuff out (or giving it away). You still get to organize but it doesn't spiral out of control...

6/09/2010 02:21:00 PM  

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