Reclaiming my brain from the internet age

Wed, Oct 31, 2012, 00:00

My insatiable consumption of online information has taken a toll on my mind and habits, and now it’s time to do something about it, writes UNA MULLALLY

IN NICHOLAS CARR’S 2010 book The Shallows, the author writes: “Over the last few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory.”

When I read those words, I felt an odd mix of solidarity and foreboding. It was real. In these early stages of analysing the impact the internet is having on our brains, Carr’s book is a landmark. Since reading it, I’ve examined my own over-reliance on technology, which went from habitual to detrimental. I know I’m not alone, but sometimes ignorance is bliss, because when I realised the impact the internet has on my brain, I couldn’t shake the thought that I’ll never get my old mind back.

This month, “internet-use disorder” was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or the DSM, a book that’s the international psychiatric manual. And if we examine our own behaviour, I believe a huge number of people are somewhere on the spectrum of this modern condition.

It started when web 2.0 came along, as the internet changed from a static information feed to a shape-shifting, user-generated open community. And then social networking came along, the dark matter in this new universe that changed everything all over again.

The real surge in my compulsive and frazzled use of technology came last year when the Sunday Tribune closed and I went freelance. Working from home, with no office chats or colleagues to bounce ideas off, the majority of my interactions moved online. Twitter was my watercooler. And the nature of freelancing as a job is entirely different to being a staff writer. Because ideas are your currency, you must consume a monumental amount of information every week, knowing everything from the ins and outs of the Children’s Referendum to the quality of the new album from The xx.

You need to be able to spot trends as they are germinating, recognise the next big thing when it’s just a small thing, and know the irony behind whatever meme peaks on a given Wednesday. Very quickly, information consumption overtakes real interaction. Whole days might go by when your conversations are conducted solely over email, phone, text, and Twitter. And then, gradually, you can’t turn it off.

As children, we were told not to sit in front of the TV all day, to put the Nintendo down, and go outside and get some fresh air. Yet as adults, we are amplifying those bad habits, staring at screens in work, staring at phones on the bus, staring at iPads at home.

I began to see a correlation between myself and others who are online too much; an over-consumption of coffee; a wide knowledge “about” things but not actually “of” them – Cliff notes as opposed to wisdom; an “early adopter” shame attached to not knowing about something the minute it happened; and, most of all, the collapse of concentration levels caused by distraction.

All of these things caused a mental buzzing that was hard to turn down. I found myself crashing more, mini episodes where my brain would shut down like a dodgy laptop, and experiencing an odd manic fatigue at the end of the day caused by the amount of information stimulation.

And what was the end of the day? What are work hours when really, there is no clocking out? Modern technology has become the great interrupter; a constant symphony of interruptions soundtrack the day.

WHEN I THINK about how my brain works now, I imagine old footage of phone operators plugging lines in and out of sockets. I feel like my sockets are open tabs, apps, mail and Twitter clients, documents, podcasts, videos and rudimentary phone games, rarely sticking at anything for more than a few minutes, sometimes not even more than a few seconds. But here’s the most worrying thing: because I’m flitting from one thing to another every other second, things fall through the cracks.

Frequently, if I think of an idea for an article or even a simple task such as “write that email” or “get that notebook from downstairs”. The thought will completely exit my mind seconds after forming it. This webmentia – a technology-induced fault in how I actually think – has forced me to change how I hold on to information. I have to write tasks down in lists at the start of every day. Ideas for articles are written down in other lists in specific notebooks, or entered in my phone notes before I forget them. Every appointment, be it for leisure or work, must be entered in the calendar in my phone the minute it’s made or I simply won’t remember it.

Short-term memory, the filing cabinet in our brains where we hold things for about a minute, is small. We can only store about seven independent pieces of information there at any one time, such as a phone number someone reads out to you. But because our short-term memories are so small, and the amounts of information we’re consuming are so large, the filing cabinet bursts open, and documents fall to the floor – the thoughts fall out of your head.

Since the printing press (and perhaps before), humans have been lamenting the impact technology has on our capacity to concentrate.

Every generation rediscovers this as new technologies emerge. But it’s the leap in behavioural change thanks to the internet that is unique to this generation. Anyone who spends a lot of time online knows that the genie is out of the bottle. Privacy is defunct. Mobile internet has become a safety blanket that’s reached for during any gap of activity, or sometimes even during an activity. By constantly connecting to a remote world, we’re ignoring the real one around us.

Sometimes I wonder if our necks will evolve facing downwards.

WATCHING A surfer in West Cork recently, I imagined that all he was thinking about was paddling, of the next wave, of spitting out water, of kneeling and then standing and repeating the process over and over again. The only thing he was hearing was the sea sloshing about and the seagulls overhead. There was no app monitoring his speed, he didn’t pause to check his mail, or Instagram a photo. He had checked out. Because a fear of missing out seems to tinge everything, I realised I never checked out, so in order to untangle myself from the web, I made a few changes.

I try not to stare at my computer all day. Of course, sitting at a laptop is necessary, but the minute I find myself wandering from the task at hand into a YouTube hole, or scrolling zombie-like down some stupid Tumblr, I snap myself out of it and get up and walk around, and do something like make a cup of tea.

I read the papers every morning in hard copy – thus saving my eyesight and the industry. Woo hoo! I write longhand on occasion instead of typing. The first time I did that in a long time, my hand actually hurt after a few hundred words because the muscle memory must have been so confused.

Every day, I do what I have nerdily called “brain hour”, which is stimulating my brain outside of the online-information churnover. This means going to a gallery, a play, listening to a decent record or an intelligent podcast, drawing something, having coffee outside somewhere and listening to conversations, reading a book.

And I’ve started running. Just a half an hour every other day where my mind concentrates on my breathing and my pace and my sore knees. And fine, I may glance at the clock counting down on the running app I’ve downloaded, but, you know, gimme a break.

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