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The Internet and Your Brain – Part 2

Last time I talked about how the Internet may be changing our brains and affecting our ability to focus on a single thought process.  The constant pace of email, RSS, Twitter, Facebook and the ubiquitous link beckon us to keep moving along.  Bored with what you are reading or doing for even just a second?   There are always many more places you can visit with just the click of a mouse.

A related topic is how poor the brain actually is at multi-tasking.  Trying to watch TV while you read or write?  Turns out your brain does both worse.  All the “context switching” from one task to another requires a constant reloading of information from your long term memory into your limited short term memory.  Each time you change tasks, you essentially require a dump to disk and a reload.  Doing this over and over again many times an hour will quickly make you feel exhausted, tired, and stressed, yet this is just another day at work for the typical knowledge worker.  The result is not only worse performance and results, it also makes you feel worse.

The problem is not the technology.  I love the ability that operating systems have for multi-tasking, and have multiple windows open on my laptop (with a giant external monitor for even more real estate).  The problem is the way we abuse the technology.

Do we really need to check email every minute and be informed of new messages with a visual alert, a chime, and a badge in our taskbar? Does that increase our ability to get our job done?  Or does the constant interruption destroy our ability to think?  Is that new email a message from friend?  A dreaded response from a supervisor or colleague?  A new thing to add to your overloaded to-do list?  An excuse to procrastinate?  I’ll just have a look and see…all it takes is one little click.

There are of course some quick and easy things you can do to help alleviate the temptations, and most are pretty simple:

  • turn off new email notifications
  • set your email application to only check for new messages every 30 minutes or hour
  • shut down your email application (the horror!) and only turn it on when you are at a good stopping point in your writing or coding
  • turn on your email application for only one hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon – unless your job specifically mandates fast responses (e.g. tech support, air traffic control, brain surgeon), or there is an immediate deadline (product launch, proposal due), the world will probably not end if you only respond to emails every day or so

Or you can enlist the help of some software to coax you along.  I’ve been playing with these tools:

  • Isolator – a nifty little (free) application for the Mac that blanks out or blurs every window on your computer except the front most.  It is a simple concept but is remarkably effective.
  • Full screen mode – writing and word processing software sometimes have full screen modes that hide everything except the text you are writing.  WriteRoom is the prime example, but Apple’s Pages app and many others now have something similar.
  • TidyRead, Safari Reader, Instapaper, etc. – various ways to read a web page without having all of the distracting sidebars, navigation, and so on. Safari 5 has a built in reader function.  All you have to do is click the “READER” button in your address bar.  As a bonus, it even loads multi-page articles into a single page all at once and removes all hyperlinks. Instapaper lets you clip articles for reading later in your browser, iPhone, iPad, etc, and those versions are free of clutter.  TidyRead is a Chrome and Firefox extension similar in concept to Safari 5 reader.  For a truly clutter free web experience it can be set to trigger automatically on each page load.
  • Pomodoro – promotes the concept of working on just one item for a fixed block of time (e.g. 25 minutes) before taking a short break and moving onto a new item (or back to the first one).  You don’t need software for this, but this free Mac app gives you a little clock in your menu bar and some reminders.
  • StayFocusd – a Chrome extension that lets you set a time limit on how long you can spend on distracting websites (I am looking at you Facebook) in any given day.  It is highly configurable (times and URLs).  A similar extension for Firefox is called LeechBlock.
  • Concentrate – a $29 Mac application that lets you specify a set of rules for a given task, such as quitting or launching applications, blocking websites and applications, executing AppleScripts, etc.  I don’t use it, but it looks interesting.
  • SelfControl – for the hardcore addict, this free Mac app blocks access to a designated list of websites for a set period of time, no questions asked.  Works across browsers and cannot be reset, even with a reboot.  You just have to wait for the time to be up.  Bonus: icon is a skull and crossbones.
  • Anti-social and Freedom – similar to SelfControl, but costs money and is available for both Windows and Mac.  Anti-social only blocks certain websites, while Freedom kills your Internet connection entirely.  A reboot will get you back, but the shame of rebooting just to check your email or Facebook will keep you focused.

By the way, I highly recommend the excellent book Refactor Your Wetware, which covers multi-tasking, focus, and cognitive function from the perspective of an engineer trying to optimize the processes.  It’s a great way to learn more about this topic, and find ways to improve your cognitive ability.

Can the Internet change your brain?

I recently finished reading the new book by Nicholas Carr called “The Shallows“. The premise of the book is that technology used to carry information has important implications for how our brains evolve over time.  Watching television news coverage utilizes different parts of our brain than reading a newspaper, and although the information may be similar, the way it is absorbed and processed is different.

The Internet is profoundly different from virtually every other previous technology for a couple reasons:

  • it has hyperlinked text, making it easy to move from one area to another
  • it has a vast, almost unlimited, amount of information available on demand via powerful search engines like Google

When you also add in the ability for two-way communication, blurring the lines between producers and consumers, you have a profoundly new broadcast mechanism.  There is of course not profound and there is of course much to celebrate in these technologies.  The ability to quickly locate virtually any piece of information instantly has made research easier and faster.  The ability to communicate with anyone in the world brings families and friends closer together.

But each of these technologies has downsides, and Mr Carr explores them in depth and discusses how their use, or more precisely, their overuse, can lead to changes in the physiology of our brains.

His main point is that the vast quantity of information, parceled over web pages, and read quickly and primarily on computer screens, leads to a shift in learning patterns.  We move from reading longer passages in a linear fashion over to searching, and then quickly scanning web pages. Mr Carr provides evidence that this activity causes the parts of our brain responsible for filtering and scanning to be strengthened, while the parts of our brain responsible for deep reading and comprehension are weakened.

Short term memory can hold only a handful of items at any one time.  In order to transfer that knowledge into long term memory, the human brain needs some time to process it, place it into a larger framework of relevance, and then process it.  Mr Carr argues that searching and scanning, the predominant form of reading while web browsing, is not conducive to the transfer of knowledge into long term storage, nor of its true comprehension.  In this model, we simply search for information when we need it, and trust that when we need it again, Google will be there for us.  We quickly scan it, decide which pieces are important to us at the moment and use them.   If we find a link that seems interesting, we follow it, sending us down another pathway, causing the place we just were to slide out of our short term view.  Essentially, we use the Internet as a form of massive, virtual short term memory, like a little window cut into a piece of paper and being run over the pool of knowledge.  At any one time, we see only the pieces of information behind that little window, but not how they might fit together into a larger cohesive framework of knowledge.  For this we need the long term memory and deep thinking, and these are what become weak when we don’t give our brains an opportunity to absorb information at a more relaxed pace.

So does the Internet make us dumb?  I don’t think so, but it does change our behaviors.  I can certainly attest to finding it harder to focus, especially when I am in front of a computer.  There is something about a book that invites you in, asks you to close the door and allows you to forget about the rest of the world.  There is something entirely the opposite about an open web browser – it beckons you to go far and wide on a virtual safari.  Each is a very different type of activity, and there is value in both.  I sensed this before and knew something was going amiss, but reading this book has made me put down the computer and read more books, and it’s hard to argue with that.

Next time I’ll talk about some software I’ve found to help improve the web browsing experience when you actually want to slow your brain down for a bit and allow some of that information to be converted into actual knowledge.

Email – savior or bane of our existence?

Do you dread coming back from vacation to find the buckets of work email waiting for you?  Do you secretly use your iPhone/Blackberry/etc. while on vacation just to “clean out your email a bit”.  Do you think all of this email is making us smarter or able to work better?  And…what did people do 20 years ago when email was almost non-existant in the workplace?  People still did stuff, the economy still grew, right?  I mean, we built rockets to fly people to the moon before we had laptops, web browsers, Mathematica, and email!

I don’t know the answers to most of these questions…but I do know that the good use email is wonderful and a great time saver, and the poor use of email is a time waster, a morale killer, and sometimes bad for your career.  People do things like blindly reply-all over and over again filling up everyone’s mail box, CC their boss just in case, say angry things they would never say in person, and more.  So how do we define the difference between good and bad email.

Characteristics of bad work email:

1. Bad emails tend to have a lot of people on the TO or CC line.  Unless its a group announcement of some kind, this usually signals the sender doesn’t know who the relevant people are and is just blasting it out.  Equivalent to standing in the lobby and yelling out your message.

2. Bad emails tend to have information instead of knowledge.   As my friend from high school put it, information is simply data without a clear understanding of its significance, while knowledge is the useful application of accumulated data.

3. Bad emails tend to have no clear indication on whether action is expected from the recipient.

Characteristics of good work email:

1. Opposite of the above three items.

The key challenge is to deal with the daily deluge of information from all sources: email, Twitter, Facebook, newspapers, TV, websites, Digg, and so on. Sifting through all this raw data, analyzing it, discovering patterns, ignoring the noise, and not spending too much time acting on irrelevant information is critical to the survival of any information worker or professional.  Improving our use of email is one way to reduce the mental clutter of our daily work existence and hopefully moving us closer to spending time generating knowledge instead of just more information.