Life in the (visual) fast lane

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A recent book review in Business Week of The Shallows by Norman Carr highlighted that changes in technology could be making us dumber. I confess I haven’t read the book (yet), but its headline message sounds alarming: Is the net fostering stupidity?

Carr argues that as our all singing, all dancing internet flashes and zips to get our attention, our brains fairly fry with all the distractions. We stare at all the competing stuff for around 8.5 hours a day and end up with the attention span of a gnat. Carr doesn’t seem to offer a solution.

The bleak picture might be brightened a little by understanding how the brain has evolved. I’ve been reading Norman Doidge’s  The Brain That Changes Itself. He argues that in our hunter/gatherer times, all our senses got used just about equally – hearing, seeing, touch, taste, smell. Our brains needed all of these senses all of the time to survive.

Now we don’t need to catch our food, we can get it delivered to our home/office. We don’t actually need to leave the house. We can access information from around the globe via a screen, which  is not a bad thing per se. Both Doidge and Carr point out that in stepping up exposure to this high speed visual world, we can develop a taste for faster transitions – witness 3D action packed movies, TV adverts and animated websites. Doidge argues that we develop the visual preference at the expense of other senses. Over time, this makes slower stuff more challenging – reading a book, listening to a lecture, simply going for a walk, looking at art etc.

So we have a choice. But we need to be aware of potentially addictive quality of life in the visual fast lane. Doidge cites a study at Hammersmith Hospital in London of kids playing a fast-moving computer game. As they mastered the game, their levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine were raised. Dopamine is connected with reward, and in this kind of visual game, the reward is instant. Like any other addictive behaviour, this reward-seeking can lead to cravings, neglecting other activities and a feeling of euphoria when back in front of the screen. Even the ping of an email dropping into the inbox provides a little dopamine hit (which is probably why US office workers check their email 30-40 times an hour, according to the stats in Business Week).

So the internet provides us with a fantastic tool for accessing information, but the body (including the brain) needs the balance of input from senses other than solely visual. So feel the warm sand between your toes, taste the sharp salt air by the beach, hear the birds wheel by and savour the cup of coffee after the walk. Slowing down allows the brain to rest, and allows some creative ideas to bubble up in the space. Balance is everything.

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