Wednesday, May 28, 2014

What I've Been Reading Lately: The Shallows

I recently (okay, well at least in the last month) finished The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. It’s easily the best nonfiction book I’ve read this year. It’s been life changing.

The main idea is that the kind of thought processes that using the internet as a form of media encourages prevents deep thought, the contemplative kind that leads to the experience of feeling transported by what one reads, the kind that provides a foundation for creative, philosophical, and critical thought. Carr details how our daily thought processes will actually change our neural pathways. The way that we think when we use the internet, specifically reading hypertext, keeps us in a state of decision making and distraction. Will we click that link? Is it time to check twitter again? Facebook? Do I have any new emails?

I’ve actually found myself looking for further distractions even when my intentions for opening up my web browser have been fulfilled. For example, the other day I had just read Oranges by Miranda July and wanted to Google her to find out about other pieces of creative writing she had done. After scanning (not really reading) her Wikipedia article, I went back to my search results to see a link to her Twitter page, which then prompted me to look up other writers I might want to follow. When I couldn’t name any more off the top of my head, I decided to look up the edition of Tin House I had read her story in, rather than walk away from the computer and open up the paper copy in the other room…Next thing I knew I was on a book search and checking for the availability of titles at my local library while cross referencing things on Amazon to see if I’d rather buy them. So of course it was time to check Facebook, Twitter, and Bloglovin’.

Distraction? Yes, that holds true in my experience.

And not just with my  interactions with technology. Over the past few years (in which I have spent 10-20 hours a week online for work, plus whatever time I was putting into personal use probably 2-12 hours a week on top of that) I’ve noticed an increasing sense of feeling overwhelmed by my daily life. I’m always adding one more project that I need to do, before I’ve started the one I just gathered all the supplies for, I’m pulling out another stack of fabric and some picture frames that I’m going to just do something with real quick then reaching for my notebook so I can write down a few more ideas. Before I pick up a sewing needle, the littles are asking for a snack or have gotten frustrated with their game together and need my intervention.

Granted, in these years, I’ve had two kids and have nursed them into toddlerhood. Both pregnancy and lactation are notorious for brain melting.* So I had just attributed my spaciness and distractedness to childbearing and felt like I had to live with it.

Once I read The Shallows, I began paying more attention and I realized that I really am creating a lot of my own distractions from within, even offline and when I am alone. I found the thought of losing access to deep thought and contemplation terrifying. Even the prospect of becoming less adept at deep thought makes me cringe. Tracking my thought processes more consciously, I realized just how much I was being distracted like I was rapidly flitting between tabs in a web browser.

With just this awareness, I’ve reeled in my distraction (errr…maybe roughly 50%). When I’m starting a project I just start one now, even when I want to start more. Sometimes I’ll still multitask, but only when it actually makes sense: like working on another project while the paint is drying on the first one. And when I am online, I force myself to focus, read through an entire article, ignoring hyperlinks until the end of the article then going back to choose the ones I really did want to follow. I’ve tried to pre-identify the things I just want to scan read from things I really want to hear about. I’ll read Miranda July’s Wikipedia article, but just scan her tweets. I feel more focused and put together, even with two adorably distracting little people frolicking through my days.

The Shallows was a life-changing and fascinating read. Carr also gives a positively engaging history of media and its relationship to our thought processes as humans who interact with it. This alone is worth the read, even if you aren’t seeking to cure yourself of the too-many-mental-tabs-open syndrome.  The Shallows also introduced me to common place books, an exciting new addition to my intellectual life that I will be detailing in another post soon.

*Brain melting, which is to say making the beta brain wave state difficult to maintain. Other slower brainwaves (the ones associated with creativity, spiritual experience and even spontaneous healing) are much easier to access during this time so it’s brain melting or brain super powers, depending on how you look at it. I said brain melting here because the mental tasks I was having trouble with were all beta type tasks.

Have you read anything life changing lately? I’d love to hear about it in the comments. I’m always on the prowl for good reading material. 

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