Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Driven to distraction

Despite the alleged erosion of our brain powers Nicholas Carr laments, once in a while a longer, earth-shattering, potentially life-changing article does shoot to the top of the NYT’s “most emailed” list. The latest example is Matt Richtel’s “Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price.” It highlights the way electronic multiple devices can become addictive and undermine our ability to focus, filter out irrelevant stimuli, and stay “connected” in our first lives. It also offers a snapshot of the “work station” of a troubled (yet successful) IT entrepreneur – semi-surrounded by four computer screens, he looks like Tom Cruise in front of all those controls in “Top Gun.” As published on the web, though, the article has an ironic twist. It is interlaced with 19 blue-tinged hyperlinks enticing us to click away from it while reading. At school, this would be called “teaching by negative example.” Richtel cites a couple of neuroscientists who sound worried that this state of being incessantly hooked to IT devices must be rewiring our plastic brains in somewhat unhealthy ways. Yet, most of the concerns are still related to changes in our thinking and ability to empathize – as a result of the direct pressures and enticements we experience. It should by now be evident that any profound changes in the way we think or feel should be linked to changes in our brain wiring and activation, not only to cognitive or behavioral adaptations. But the old frame of reference lingers on.