Thursday, January 12, 2012

Why Twitter is Killin' Your Muse (And Your GPA)

Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Chapter 7 suggests that the Internet is rewiring our brains at an alarming speed - and that while this rewiring is good for multitasking, it's quite bad for learning.

Carr lists tens of formal studies to back up his claims. Basically, the onslaught of stimulation that the Internet provides - hyperlinks, flashy graphics, sounds, chunks of text, instant messages, emails - divides our attention. We can only hold so much in our short-term memory, so when we try to focus on all these things at once we don't get the full picture. Thinking about 15 things at once shallowly instead of thinking about one thing deeply is re-wiring our synapses for that purpose. So, even if you can pull yourself away from Twitter and turn off your phone for a hour, when you sit down to read that academic article for your 400-level class your brain is still skittering around not wanting to focus deeply.

Something else that plays into this is our pleasure cycles. We get little moments of happy from checking our Facebook and seeing something cool, or looking at pictures of cats with bad grammar, or refreshing our email inbox and finding something new. Humans crave more, new, different. We'll click over to a social media site 30x an hour even if we know the odds are there's nothing good there, just for the chance there might be. Then we wonder why we can't sit still in a 65-minute lecture.

Even deeper research shows that this 'browsing' type of taking in content is changing the way we view other media. We skim course materials. We don't think deeply enough about what we're reading. We learn things superficially, just gleaning enough knowledge to skirt by.

This lack of depth in thinking causes a host of things - some good, some bad. We're better at multi-tasking now, and even though it's bad for us it's good for staying abreast in the fast-paced business world. Our spatial-awareness and reaction times are better - but we could get that playing video games. The downsides: anxiety and loss of creativity, comprehension, and original ideas.

That's right. All those tweets, texts, and Reddit browsing are whittling away your grade point average and your novel. Studies show that with the shallowness of thinking multi-tasking employs, users are more likely to accept the information put in front of them instead of thinking critically about it, and have a harder time analyzing it and drawing opinions of their own or thinking creatively.

Do I buy into this? You'd better believe I do. I've seen way too many people who are completely addicted to checking their phones for texts or tweets... and I watch the same students who text and browse the Internet during class whine to the teacher that they're failing and they don't understand why. I bounced around doing 3-4 other things while writing this post - how many times did you check another tab, glance at your phone or TV, etc. while reading this lengthy post (assuming you even read the whole thing)?

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