I recently began reading The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. I first saw him on The Colbert Report and was intrigued by his interview.  I have only read the prologue, but already I am hooked.

Even when I was away from my computer, I yearned to check email, click links, do some Googling.  I wanted to be connected.  Just as Microsoft Word had changed me into a flesh-and-blood word processor, the Internet, I sensed, was turning me into something like a high-speed data-processing machine, human HAL.

I missed my old brain.

 Carr’s story struck such a chord with me that I made it a mission to get my old brain back.

I used to sit and lose myself in 300 page novels. I’ve never really been good at getting work done in front of the TV or if there is music with words playing in the background.  I get to work at 7:20 am every morning so that I can have an hour to myself uninterrupted in my room before the day starts. So why am I kidding myself that I’m doing my best work with TweetDeck running, my email open and a tab open for Facebook (not to mention countless other tabs and windows)?

These last few days I have done my best to only check my email on my phone if I feel the urge. This keeps me from getting sucked into the computer. I spent today catching up on my Newsweek magazines, helping my friend with some little tasks for her jewelry-making company and rather than take the train home I walked the 20 blocks. It felt wonderful. It’s almost as if every minute I spend off the computer makes it that much easier to close the lid.

It’s a weird revelation for someone who dedicates so much time to using technology for her own learning and spends so much time and energy learning new ways that technology can inspire and motivate students while allowing them to take control of their own learning.  

Call me ‘old school,’ but I think that it is important that we teach students how to focus on one thing at a time. I think our students need to be aware of their own multitasking and they need to be taught how to take measures to balance the skimming and shallow activities that they do on the Internet with deeper, uninterrupted activities.

In my experience, when I spend hours multitasking on the computer or spend days at a time sitting at the computer I feel scatterbrained and unfocused. I find it hard to start tasks around the house or sit and read my Newsweek or whatever book I have on my Kindle at the time.  Today I felt focused, refreshed and, well, alive.

I recently read a wonderful New York Times article entitled I Tweet Therefore I Am. In the article, the author describes a touching moment with her daughter which she has an urge to tweet out to her friends. She continues to eloquently describe how Twitter plays into our psyche and our self-image. Twitter has definitely changed the way I experience life. Small observations and experiences become tweets in my head almost unconsciously. For example, I am thinking of a tweet right now while I watch The Daily Show about how having Will Ferrell and Jon Stewart at the dinner table would be the best night of my life.

I am certain that the Internet is changing the way we think and experience our day to day lives. We need to be conscious of this and make sure that we don’t mistake efficiency and the ability to absorb large amounts of information for careful reading and thoughtful reflection on what we are absorbing.

I am also certain that the Internet has been an invaluable resource for me, especially over the past year. The information and resources I have accumulated that help me be a better teacher, the relationships that I have fostered, the connections I have made, the dialogues and debates I have had are priceless. Granted, I have been forced to learn how to manage all of this information through various tools like Google Reader and Diigo. I have also been forced to learn how to manage my online relationships through tools like TweetDeck. The result? From time to time I have an information overload or a feeling that I can’t keep up with all of the conversations flying by. I start to find myself clicking around from tab to tab or tweet to tweet mindlessly.

I miss my old brain.

photo courtesy of Dimi15 on Flickr

25 Comments

  1. Reply

    MB,

    Very interesting observations. I am an internet addict. I love Twitter and the various other social networking sites I belong to. I check my blog several times a day, and I am always thinking of ways I can use Social Media to build my brand. I enjoy being connected. So much so that when my wife and I went on vacation, I just had to hit Twitter and Facebook. I didn't like the fact that I only had my phone.

  2. Reply

    Ah Mary Beth, I think it happens to all of us from time to time – missing our old brain. I know there have been days this summer when I feel like I haven't accomplished anything. I couldn't stop reading the tweets, or clicking the links, or exploring some tool. I feel guilty when hours have passed and I'm still sitting in my corner of the couch with my feet curled up clicking away on my laptop. I begin to think that I am letting too much time slip away.

  3. Reply

    i miss my old brain, too. i'm curious about that book as well–have heard about it but it's on the very long list of books i intend to read. i think the connectedness that the internet/cell phones/whatever else can bring is great, but until our brains can catch up to our fast-paced technology, i think we need to start giving ourselves time to focus. to spend an afternoon reading a book, to leave the tv off and the laptop closed– i started doing these things when i realized i was feeling like you "scatterbrained and unfocused" after 8 hours of computer time at work; only to come home and goof around online or write–basically adding even more screentime to my already overloaded brain. taking a moment to quiet down and not try to absorb anything has helped me to get a little bit of that old brain back.

    let me know how that book is!

  4. Reply

    Books are certainly not part of what could be seen as "natural objects" for us humans… being plunged and focused a whole afternoon reading a book would have killed you back in the stone-age… it's a luxury to have the time to read even now for many humans around the world… books are technological tools that have profoundly changed our brains too, when we were kids and told to sit still and focus… I'm not saying that I don't like reading a book, but that we should not take it for a "natural" thing to do…

  5. Reply

    I had an interview with a New York Times reporter recently about the future of note-taking in schools. As we talked and my fingers flew effortlessly between various sites, sources, posts, and resources I shared with him, he stopped and commented, "Wow! You've really outsourced a significant amount o your brain."

    That struck me. I have outsourced a lot of my brain, but I've become a master at developing ways to tap in to my mobile devices to access what I need with precision instantly.

    I don't miss my old brain. I love my new brain that has been meshed with a computer and phone as extensions of my brain. My brain thrives on these connections and was left always longing or more in the 20th century. Technology has become food for my brain and in turn has become a part of my brain.

  6. Reply

    I miss my old brain, too. Russ and I have made a commitment that during the school year, and hopefully it carries over outside of that, we will go without computers from the time we get home from school until Henry goes to bed. This may seem like a, "duh" to some people, but we realize that we spend too much time stuck in front of our screens! I'm looking forward to it! I want to paint, read, photograph things, go for walks!

  7. Reply

    Mary Beth, this post really spoke to me. In the past year I have increased my online time exponentially. Through the internet I have established connections that are invaluable, learned much from other educators through blogs, and discovered ways to improve my practice. I value my time online.

    Of course, I've noted the same challenges. My stack of professional and personal books I want to read awaits my attention. The basement of my house still hasn't had its summer cleaning and the living room has yet to be painted.

    For me, I suppose it's about finding a balance. The internet has me motivated to learn more. Where I am today in my thinking is well beyond where I was a year ago. Google Reader, Twitter Lists, Evernote and Diigo have helped me to work more efficiently. They allow me to save and savor information I want to return to and think about.

    However, I think you are right about the importance of closing the laptop to enjoy a good read, to laugh with friends and family, to reflect on all we have taken in, and to maybe clean the basement. Thanks for sharing. Cathy

  8. Reply

    Bob,

    You make a good point when you say that books also changed the way our brains work. However, my reading of 300 page novels has more to do with the feeling I get out of it and the creativity my mind uses to put myself into a scene than something that comes 'natural.' That is the only activity that makes me feel that way. I also am not just talking about reading when I talk about focus. Cleaning my house takes focus, tending to my plants takes focus and completing a blog post that is concise and organized takes focus. Honestly, after too much screen time, all of these seem like impossible tasks!

  9. Reply

    I guess all I can say, Lisa, is that I'm jealous πŸ™‚ I do love the fact that I have trained myself how to manage my online life and that as someone who doesn't know how to take a break or slow down and someone who never stops learning this new brain is fitting. But when my new brain finds it hard to do simple tasks I think it's time to take a step back. For me that's what's happened.

  10. Reply

    I like that idea, Becky! I wonder what Henry's world will be like in 10 years and whether his generation's brains won't even know what they're missing! I also used to do all of those things, but can't remember the last time I picked up a paint brush. It used to bring me such solace and peace!

  11. Reply

    Cathy,

    I know ALL about the basement fiasco! Mine is so close to being halfway there, but I've found myself sucked into the screen until 5 or 6pm–not a good time to go cement and paint a basement!

  12. Reply

    I would feel that way, too (which is why I love my iPhone!) I don't think I'd be where I am professionally without social media. There's something about peace and quiet, though, that makes me feel better on the inside!

  13. Reply

    Maybe time is really what I'm missing. I guess I have to figure out on a daily basis how I should spend my time that day.

  14. Reply

    I'd be happy to keep my new brain as long as I can keep some of my old brain, too! I'll let you know how the book is.

  15. Reply

    I've been a slacker with my RSS lately, but finally got around to it. Nicely written post. My wife threatens to take my phone or laptop away quite a bit because I'm always "jagging around the on the computer." In fact, one day, she did hide it and I freaked out. Seriously, was really mad. I can't live without it, but need to find that balance.

  16. Reply

    You must have been reading my mind with that new brain of yours. I too have been missing my old brain, the one that didn't feel sorry that it could read quietly with no distractions for hours. I have a stack of books that I want to read and honestly have only read two. I am going to be unhooking much more in the coming weeks. My new brain is great, but it needs some time to read, reflect, and recharge. Technology is great, but you know….All things in moderation….

  17. Deven Black

    Reply

    My old brain was even more distracted than my new one. I use checking my email, Twitter, Google reader, etc. as a way to avoid doing unpleasant tasks and it works very well. Right now I am avoiding going through the pile of books, CDs, files, folders and other detritus of teaching so that I can get it all ready for next year. I'd write more but I really should get to that pile…

  18. Reply

    This is the rub. It is hard to remember what I did with myself before all of the technology always at my fingertips, always multitasking. I think it is important for us all to go back to that old brain so that we give ourselves the chance to truly rest, relax, and enjoy life outside the screen. It can be hard when there is so much that could pull us back. I love connecting with others around the world, learning, keeping up with current news. But we also have to make time for those old hobbies, interests and people in our lives. Great reminder and post! Shutting the lid on my computer so I can make dinner and watch The Daily Show πŸ™‚

  19. Matt Arguello

    Reply

    I couldn't have said it better myself. This is certainly something with which I struggle. But it's all about finding balance. You're certainly right on about teaching lessons of moderation to our students. Thanks for another great post.

  20. bfteach

    Reply

    saw the same interview – book is on my short list….(let's face it – due to my new brain, the list is actually pretty long)…identified a lot with the feelings you discussed….good stuff…i also saw somewhere (maybe that interview, actually) that the more we multi-task, the worse at multi-tasking we get…i miss my old brain, too, sometimes…i have to choose to disconnect from the matrix now, when it used to be the reverse…things like yoga and exercise help, be i get to do them too rarely….thanks for reminding us about the need to embrace "the golden present" more

  21. Yolan

    Reply

    Thanks for voicing your thoughts and feelings about the hectic pace that using social networking tends to create. I, too, have the same feelings. And, it's gotten worse since I've retired. Now I have more time to "play" with the Internet. One tool that I have found to help me get away from Twitter's pull is http://paper.li. The service collects the links shared on Twitter by user, list, or tag and creates a daily newspaper which allows one to keep up-to-date without the constant need to see what's been tweeted.

  22. Joe

    Reply

    I'm not sure if we really miss our "old brain" so much as the nostalgia of simpleness of anytime other than today. Part of the problem is being connected makes us more aware that we are "missing something" rather than simpler days in which the things we were missing weren't within our reach (a click away). Personally, I don't miss my old brain, I love the now.

  23. fmindlin

    Reply

    To me it seems a false dichotomy. The old and the new are interwoven and overlap. I think your key line is : we need to teach our students how to focus on one thing at a time. There is no such thing as multi-tasking, there is only rapid switching from one thing to another, and each switch decreases the retention and attention to the next thing. What students can experience in school, from time to time (and few other places), is double-digit periods of relative silence. That's one key to enabling the construction of the mental landscapes in which connections can be made and understandings arise.

    The filtering of information from our media flood is uncritical when we enter that landscape as consumers. Students recognize the value of reflection if they are encouraged and supported to become creators with developed voices who have an active part in the conversation.

    Fred Mindlin
    Associate Director for Technology Integration
    Central California Writing Project http://ccwp.ucsc.edu/ http://www.thedigitalstoryteller.com/
    "Intelligence is knowing what to do when you don't know what to do." — John Holt

  24. Reply

    The reason I'm months late with this comment is because I left my "new brain" in Denver after ISTE10 and I took a vacation.

    I didn't used to believe in technological burnout. Got myself in trouble (still not sure how, really) when I questioned someone about using that as an excuse. My PLN experience changed dramatically because I didn't believe that burning out was possible… and boy was I wrong!

    I decided to throw in the towel. My adjustment is using the computer only 2 nights a week. I'm allowed to sit at the computer on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Any other day I can check real quick, but cannot sit down. The only exceptions are before 6AM or after 9PM. We'll see how it works. I miss my old brain, too!

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