Changing Our Minds
Christine Neulieb December 13, 2010 - 9:53am
It’s in vogue to ask what the Internet is doing to our brains. Will constant exposure to technology destroy human memory and attention span? Will it turn us into machines who can take in massive amounts of information over the course of a day but never understand it with any depth? Are college students really learning if they’re taking notes on their laptops, but keeping Facebook and e-mail windows open simultaneously, and also surreptitiously texting on their cell phones?
A friend’s twenty-one-year-old sister gave me a ride to the train station the other day. She’s a student teacher in a third-grade classroom, and had just been complaining at dinner that the eight-year-olds are addicted to their cell phones—what’s the world coming to? Now, as she was driving the car with one hand, she was texting with the other.
At least we’re beginning to notice the problem. Essays on the topic of “How the Internet Is Messing Up Our Brains” are practically becoming a genre (see “Overdose”). Nicholas Carr writes in his recent book The Shallows (expanding on his 2008 essay in the Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”) that as he uses his gadgets, he often gets an unsettling feeling that “someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory.” That is, the Internet might be changing more than just the trivial details of our daily routine. It might be changing who we are, down to our very biology, as it rewires our neural pathways at a frightening rate.
It should not be shocking that a habit like constant Internet use might change us at a profound level, perhaps even ruining the capacity for sustained, contemplative focus that we once took for granted. The notion that actions create habits, which in turn shape moral character, is the foundation of virtue ethics-—as old as the ancient Greeks, and underpinning much of Catholic moral theology as well. Every day, repeated actions (bringing lunch to an elderly neighbor, embezzling company funds, surfing the Web) form us into the sorts of people we are (generous friends, untrustworthy scumbags, or distracted dilettantes). These actions even rewire our brains. If you lie constantly, your brain will adapt. It will become a liar’s brain, complete with extra white matter in the prefrontal cortex to support the hard brainwork of deception.
Virtue ethicists would argue, however, that this capacity for change is as much a cause for hope as dismay. It is true that crucial parts of character formation take place at the level of neural rewiring, where we have no direct, conscious control. One cannot wish to be a generous person and make it so by a simple act of the will. Yet we can choose the actions that incrementally cause the rewiring. Bringing the neighbor lunch, turning the computer on or off: these are voluntary. The change may be painfully slow at times, but it does happen.
So there is no reason why we have to sit helpless and passive as the Internet re-forms us in its own fractal, impersonal image. Whether the Internet ruins our brains is in the end not a scientific problem but a moral one: How will we choose to use the technology? Will we create boundaries for its involvement in our lives, or let it shape us as it pleases? One can ask whether the digital revolution will raise or lower human intelligence, but a more interesting question is whether it will make us better or worse people. And that is up to us.
How exactly to resist the scattering of attention, eroding of memory, and countless other effects of daily bombardment with terabytes of information—what sort of practice it will require—is a much more difficult question. It’s important not to trivialize the mind-numbing, will-weakening force that the onslaught of digital stimuli can have. As Carr notes, human beings, like Eve beneath the tree of knowledge, have a natural “craving to be inundated by mental stimulation,” information, and impressions. The Internet is the perfect instrument for indulging this craving. And because the instrument is so new, there are no preformulated moral precepts for how to use it well, like the precepts we tend to fall back on in the case of ethical dilemmas that have been with us longer. Developing an ethical response to the age of information overload will therefore require a lot of intellectual spadework.
While the history of ethics doesn’t offer a tailor-made solution to this problem, there are some concepts that with a little imagination can be made useful, and I want to mention three of them here. First, curiositas, the vice that killed the cat: a moral problem that was much discussed in the late Greco-Roman period but has been neglected in more recent history. Second, recollection, the virtue of inwardness: a favorite of the sixteenth-century Carmelite reformers. And finally, mindfulness, the Buddhist ideal of being fully present to the moment.
When we talk about curiosity, we generally mean a positive character trait: a lively interest in one’s surroundings, in culture and ideas; a readiness to learn. Digital information, far from always being a curse, can help satisfy this healthy desire to learn about the world. The point of Augustine and other ancient philosophers in identifying curiositas, or excessive curiosity, as a vice was that like any desire, the desire to know can get out of hand and become a controlling lust. In fact, Augustine classifies it under “lust of the eyes,” following 1 John 2:16 in picking out lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and pride of life as the three roots of vice. We’re accustomed to hearing the word “lust” in an exclusively sexual context, but the lust of the eyes, writes Augustine, has nothing to do with ogling your neighbor’s wife: that goes under lust of the flesh. Lust of the eyes refers instead to excessive desire for information and sensory input of all kinds—an unbridled pursuit of knowledge and experience. In other words, exactly that “craving to be inundated by mental stimulation” that Carr describes.
Curiositas, then, means losing the ability to control one’s consumption of information and sensory input. In practical terms: letting hours be swallowed up in reading news, watching video clips, googling obscure facts, trolling Wikipedia, jumping from link to link, checking for the latest minutiae on friends’ social-networking pages. All in all, we take in much more information than we need in order to be well-informed citizens, and much more information than we can possibly integrate into a functional mental life. It’s as if a feast is set out on a table, and we just can’t resist eating the chocolate mousse and the pecan shortbread and the red velvet cake. Scientific studies proving that the unrestrained consumption of information leaves our brains in an unfortunate state should come as no surprise. We already know what happens when we overeat.
Fleeing to the opposite extreme, however, is not the answer. At least for most people, becoming Luddites holed up in cabins off the grid is neither a possible nor a helpful solution. There has to be a balance between consuming an overload of information, on the one hand, and teetotaling on the other. It’s impossible to define in abstract terms exactly where this mean lies. For starters, individuals differ significantly as to how much information they can digest without attenuating their attention spans, just as they differ in how many calories they can consume without becoming overweight. Finding a personal balance is accordingly a long process that isn’t the same for everyone. Like all moral growth, it requires willingness to experiment, interior honesty, and probably also the advice and good example of friends who have a knack for keeping their heads above water amid the torrent of information.
One name for the end result of this process—for the virtue whose endangered-species status so alarms Carr and his ilk—is recollection. Recollection is the habit of dwelling on things that matter, rather than spending all our time caught up in trivialities. Not that there isn’t a place in life for trivial things, too; but the steady habit of returning to what’s meaningful between mental vacations keeps peripheral concerns from absorbing the whole person. Recollection also creates the ability to concentrate one’s mental and spiritual powers at will. With a recollected mind, one perceives the world like a skilled photographer with a manual camera, easily controlling depth and breadth of field, deciding what’s in the foreground and what’s in the background and how the picture is to be framed—rather than like a casual tourist with a point-and-shoot, whose camera mechanically decides all this for him.
The twentieth-century Catholic phenomenologist Dietrich von Hildebrand devoted a pithy chapter to this virtue in Transformation in Christ. Recollection, he writes there, is the opposite of distraction. The distracted mind is “dragged along from one object to another, never touching any of them but superficially”; when distracted, we are “at the mercy of our [brain’s] mechanism of associations.” That is, if we don’t choose to direct our minds to something, they have a mechanical, automatic way of filling themselves with random associations. Electronic gadgetry, because it’s so bright and shiny, so easy to access and so full of noisy information, easily becomes an extension of this particular neural mechanism, which is why it strengthens the natural human tendency to dwell in the shallows. Habitual overeating stretches out the stomach and gives it a greater capacity for overeating; habitual oversurfing stretches out the brain and gives it a greater capacity for distraction. By contrast, writes Hildebrand, recollection “means an awakening to the essential, a recourse to the absolute which never ceases to be all-important and in whose light alone everything else discloses its true meaning.” We can’t always be thinking about the absolute, but it can always be present as a background, a horizon that keeps everything else in perspective.
Teresa of Ávila bemoaned her society’s distractedness long before computers were imagined, although she did live in an era that, like our own, faced a sudden increase in access to information. She was born just seventy-five years after the invention of the printing press—years during which the number of books in circulation increased exponentially—and the distraction that widely available printed fiction caused in her youth left a deep impression on her. In fact, when Nicholas Carr discusses the early days of print, he quotes a countryman and near-contemporary of Teresa’s, the dramatist Lope de Vega:
So many books—so much confusion!
All around us an ocean of print
And most of it covered in froth.
However, Carr goes on to argue that even the poor-quality thrillers of that time—the “froth”—“helped spread the book’s ethic of deep, attentive reading,” to the extent that “whether a person is immersed in a bodice-ripper or a Psalter, the synaptic effects are the same.” I think Teresa would disagree. A young noblewoman with a lot of free time on her hands, she used to spend days at a time immersed in cheap thrillers, the sort of clichéd, romantic-adventure stories that Cervantes would parody in Don Quixote. Her later regrets about this habit are not just laments for lost time; she specifically criticizes the superficial mental life that her way of reading encouraged. She describes this surface state of mind as addictive and damaging, so much so that if you substitute “surfing the net” for “reading novels” in her confessional Life, you have a description very similar to Carr’s diagnosis of Internet addiction.
Reclaiming recollection is necessary for a peaceful daily existence, says Teresa, but much more so as a foundation for any kind of prayer: the habit of recollecting oneself at various points during the day, in order to pray even briefly, prevents “the soul from going astray and the faculties from becoming restless.” She knew recollection could be difficult for those who weren’t used to it: “I beg you to test it, even at the cost of a little trouble, which always results when we try to form a new habit.” With a little time, the trouble disappears: “You will have the great comfort of finding it unnecessary to tire yourselves with seeking this holy Father to whom you pray, for you will discover him within you.” The whole spirituality of the Carmelite order, founded as it is on contemplative prayer, is the exact antithesis to the shallows—which gives it a special relevance for the church in the digital age.
The virtue of recollection also has something in common with the Buddhist practice of right mindfulness (sammá sati), whose contemporary popularity might be explained, at least in part, by the digital age’s void of attention. Mindfulness, like recollection, is a complex concept, impossible to summarize in a few paragraphs. Its essential element is awareness of what is going on in the present moment: the processes of one’s body, emotions, and mind, and the objects that appear to them. When you walk you can simply walk, with an active but not necessarily discursive awareness of the physical movements and the mental qualities that are present in the walking. You acquire the discipline of attending to what is going on within you, what is commanding your attention on all levels, and then you are able to penetrate more deeply into what is present, rather than skimming its surface. The senses attentively sense what they are sensing, as the mind also sees what it is seeing, is fully aware of what it sees, and makes adjustments as necessary, keeping all things that claim attention in perspective.
“Be mindful” thus expresses something like the old Latin proverb age quod agis (“Do what you are doing”) or St. Benedict’s rule habitare secum (“To dwell with oneself”), and it prepares the mind for contemplation. Buddhist contemplation, of course, differs from the Judaeo-Christian variety in that it does not tend toward the individual’s encounter with a transcendent Other, but is instead a full and complete awakening to an undifferentiated state of pure being, the germ of which is already present in all things. For the Buddhist contemplative, the practice of mindfulness tends not toward solidifying the core of the human personality and then grounding that core in the divine, but toward the realization that one’s transient states of mind have no substantial self behind them at all. The individual ego, for Buddhism, is an illusion that mature awareness can see through. So ultimately the Buddhist practice of mindfulness and the Christian practice of recollection part ways as they move toward their different ends; but in the early stages, the descriptions of awareness in the two traditions can complement each other. Even in the Christian tradition, recollection of the temporal sort is an essential preamble to contemplative prayer, and for those who are familiar only with Western descriptions of recollection, Buddhist writings can offer a new set of insights and valuable comparisons.
The findings of science as to the effect of Internet use on the human brain should impel us to dust off some of these neglected ideas and see what they have to say about the problem, and maybe come up with some new ideas of our own in the process. As Lisa Fullam noted in these pages (“Thou Shalt,” April 24, 2009), long years of treating morality as a laundry list of mostly sexual shalt-nots has crippled authentic moral thinking, and moral thinking is exactly what is needed to navigate the dramatic transformations of the digital revolution without damaging our very selfhood. We need to identify and describe not only the shalt-nots of the age, but also the shalts: recollection, mindfulness, interiority, awareness. Whatever you prefer to call it, it’s what’s needed to keep Google from making us stupid. Not brain surgery, but virtue.
Funding for this article has been provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.
Read more: Letters, January 28, 2011
Related: Too Much Information, by John Garvey
About the Author
Christine Neulieb is a former Commonweal editorial assistant.