Right to roam: our minds’ ability to wander is what allows us to forge creative links. © Martin O'Neil
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This is your brain on unread emails: does the information age stop us thinking straight?

Three new books explore the modern information assault - and how to survive it.

The Organised Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload
Daniel Levitin
Penguin, 528pp, £9.99

The World Beyond Your Head: How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction
Matthew Crawford
Viking, 305pp, £16.99

The Wandering Mind: What the Brain Does When You’re Not Looking
Michael Corballis
University of Chicago Press, 184pp, £14

It has become fashionable, in recent years, to go on a digital detox. Those who can’t face unplugging their own wifi router and turning off their iPhone themselves can pay other people to restrict their tech access in Umbrian eco-hotels, on monastic retreats, or at Camp Grounded, an adult summer camp in California to help nostalgic holidaymakers “disconnect to reconnect”.

A cheaper alternative is to download the SelfControl or Freedom apps, both of which limit internet access for short periods of time to force serial procrastinators to stop googling cat pictures and get back to work. “That worked so well. I need to use @Freedom more often,” tweeted one happy user. Perhaps the apps’ names reveal how degraded these concepts have become in the digital age – the price of Freedom is $10 – but they also demonstrate a deep unease with how the internet has changed us. In 2011, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression declared that cutting off internet access violates human rights. So, if web browsing is a basic liberty, why do so many feel enslaved by it?

One common fear is that modern technology is killing our attention span. We used to spend hours engrossed in a book and read newspaper articles from top to bottom. Now most of us are forever glued to a computer screen with dozens of open tabs, simultaneously skimming the news, scrolling down Twitter and Facebook feeds and checking our emails. We are so bombarded with new information that we struggle to focus on anything longer than a tweet. Or so the argument goes. “What the net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation . . . Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a jet ski,” wrote Nicholas Carr in “Is Google making us stupid?”, his 2008 essay for the American magazine the Atlantic, a classic of this genre. His answer was, in short, yes (though his limited concentration didn’t stop him writing a New York Times bestseller on the subject).

The neuroscientist Daniel Levitin doesn’t believe the internet is making us stupider, but says it has left us with what he describes as “neural fatigue”. “Our brains are busier than ever before. We’re assaulted with facts, pseudo facts, jibber-jabber and rumour, all posing as information,” he writes in The ­Organised Mind. In 2011, Americans absorbed five times as much information as in 1986, equivalent to 175 newspapers. Our hunter-gatherer brains can’t keep up. “Every status update you read on Facebook, every tweet or text message that you get from a friend, is competing for resources in your brain with more important things like whether to put your savings in stocks or bonds, where you left your passport or how to best reconcile with a close friend.”

One of the most damaging illusions of the internet age is that human beings are effective multitaskers. We are not. When we think we are multitasking, we are actually very quickly shifting our attention from one task to the next, and this is exhausting for our brains. It increases the stress hormone cortisol, which scrambles our ability to think clearly. Multitasking is also addictive. Trying to do too many things at once makes people aggressive, impulsive and less sharp. Levitin cites research which suggests that simply noticing there’s a new email in your in-box while trying to concentrate on a different task reduces your IQ by 10 points.

Levitin also works as a consultant, and his analysis is accompanied by dull prescriptions for combating brain fatigue and becoming more like highly successful people (or HSPs, as he likes to call them): write your to-do list on index cards, buy a hook for your keys, manage your time better, don’t constantly check your emails, keep your house tidy and try to get enough sleep. The monotony of this advice is occasionally broken with a bizarre celeb anecdote: Sting “organises and partitions his time to maximise creative engagement”; Joni Mitchell’s home is a “paradigm of organisational systems”, including a drawer devoted solely to Scotch Tape; most hip-hop artists have “meticulously organised” home studios.

The tips offered are so mundane and sensible that they don’t really need scientific justification – most people at least aspire to be a bit more organised and intuitively understand that any attempt to live-tweet EastEnders while catching up on emails and cooking a cheese soufflé is likely to backfire. In fact, the science often seems much shakier than our intuitions. What does it really mean, for instance, to say that Americans “take in five times more information” than in the 1980s? How do you quantify information, and what counts as taking it in? I can (unfortunately) spend an hour scrolling through news websites and recall enough facts to fill a Post-it note.

Levitin’s belief that our “hunter-gatherer” brains are poorly suited to hi-tech multitasking is complicated, too. I imagine that life for our Palaeolithic forebears mentally could be very taxing. How different is the brainwork required to pick berries and simultaneously keep an eye on an infant while watching for hungry lions, from the kind needed for texting while walking down Oxford Street during rush hour? In other words, are we consuming more information, or just different kinds of information, in different ways – and does the distinction matter? These seem pertinent questions but Levitin doesn’t address them.

In The World Beyond Your Head, Matthew Crawford avoids science and looks instead at the philosophical implications of modern tech culture. He believes we are suffering from a “crisis of attention”. The US – or, indeed, Britain – might be commonly described as an “informational economy” but it is more accurately thought of as an “attentional economy”, because attention is the scarcer, and therefore more valuable, good. It is “attention” that advertisers buy, whether they are purchasing an online ad on a popular website, a billboard on the Underground or a prime television slot. ­Virtually every public space or surface has become marketable, and so we are bombarded with adverts everywhere we look.

Crawford is taken aback by an advertisement that flashes up on a card holder just before he enters his credit-card pin, and the one stuck to the back of his fold-out tray on an aeroplane. In South Korea, bus passengers can be squirted with the smell of Dunkin’ Donuts just as they reach the shop. “In a culture saturated with technology for appropriating our attention, our interior mental lives are laid bare as a resource to be harvested by others,” he writes. To make things worse, modern technology seems to generate in us an ever-greater need for stimulation. We are addicted to our buzzing mobiles, our rapidly filling in-boxes and ­24-hour news. For all that we’ve gained, it can feel like we have lost something, too. “We don’t feel our attention is ours, and we complain about it,” Crawford writes.

Yet his target isn’t simply technology and the way it has facilitated the admen: it is Enlightenment philosophy and classical liberalism. These have bequeathed modern society a misguided sense of the self as something separate and isolated from the material world around us. According to this world-view, we don’t encounter objects directly, but rather through our own mental representations of them: the colour blue does not exist in the world, but is a function of our perception. Intellectual freedom requires dependence on one’s own innate rationality. Autonomy is unencumbered freedom of choice. Modern technology serves this Enlightenment sense of self: ­increasingly, we encounter the world through screens. We scroll down online menus and choose things with the click of a mouse. The problem is, a click is a pretty weak form of agency.

Crawford has a PhD in philosophy and has run a motorcycle repair shop for almost 15 years, ever since he walked out of his job with a Washington think tank after five months. This unusual background has shaped his philosophy. In 2009, he wrote Shop Class as Soulcraft, a treatise celebrating the value of skilled manual labour, which became a bestseller. The World Beyond Your Head picks up this theme.

In his view, we learn and perceive and exist through interacting with the world directly. A practised motorcyclist probably can’t explain the science of why he needs to lean to make a corner, but develops a feel for riding that is learned only through doing. Increasingly, however, modern technology creates a degree of separation between an individual’s actions and his effect on the world. Driving in cruise control isn’t just boring for petrolheads, but is a symptom of a greater social malaise. Our reliance on “frictionless” or “user-friendly” technology, which seeks to anticipate our needs, makes us easier to manipulate by governments or, more usually, by big corporations. At the very extreme are modern slot machines. These are designed to be so easy to use that gamblers spend maximum amounts of money. The odds are determined by computers, so that users can’t rely on their ability to judge probabilities accurately. And they are so ­addictive that some troubled individuals wear dark trousers in anticipation of wetting themselves, unable to peel themselves away from the machine.

Crawford’s writing is dense and is hard work at times, but it can also be elegant and impassioned. His critique of modern culture is broad. He rages against the rise of muzak, against population surveys and the way in which they have created a desire to conform, against our increased aversion to face-to-face confrontation and our nastiness online, at how “political discourse has become a performance art of fake outrage”. His argument can become overblown, but it is thought-provoking. “Could muzak be made opt-in rather than opt-out? Once ­every 20 minutes, somebody in the room would have to deliberately hit a button to restart it, and thereby actively affirm that, ‘Yes! We want some emo in here!’,” he implores in his angry, pacy conclusion.

While Levitin wants to combat brain drain with index cards, and Crawford wants to kill the muzak and promote skilled industry, Michael Corballis’s The Wandering Mind is instead a celebration of our brains’ capacity for straying off-task. Modern technology may have provoked new anxieties about our short attention span, but it has also offered insight into what the brain is doing when we zone out or fall asleep or wander off-task.

Imaging techniques show that when we appear to switch off, the brain, far from slowing down, stays pretty busy. Blood flow to the idle brain is only 5 to 10 per cent lower, and larger parts of the brain are active. It is thanks to our capacity for mind-wandering that we are able to form memories, plan for the future, empathise with others, create new things and tell stories.

Corballis’s book is, perhaps fittingly, a meandering exploration of why it is not always good to be on-task or “mindful” – although, if it has one overall message, it is this: “nature designed us to dream, to escape the channels that confine us”. This is a comforting reminder that, whatever the impact of technology on our brains, it is not predetermined. Our frustratingly large capacity for distraction is also an innate source of freedom. 

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the future?

DES WILLIE/BBC
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Man alive! Why the flaws of Inside No 9 only emphasise its brilliance

A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking.​ ​Even as my brain raced, I was grinning.

At the risk of sounding like some awful, jargon-bound media studies lecturer – precisely the kind of person those I’m writing about might devote themselves to sending up – it seems to me that even the dissatisfactions of Inside No 9 (Tuesdays, 10pm) are, well, deeply satisfying. What I mean is that the occasional flaws in Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s cultish series, those unlooked-for moments when nothing quite makes sense, only serve to emphasise its surpassing brilliance.

At the end of the final episode of series three, for instance, there came a discombobulating twist. A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking. How had this happened? Were the preceding 28 minutes only a dream? Even as my brain raced, I was grinning. That line about Ron Mueck! In a piece that seemed mostly to be paying topsy-turvy homage to the camp 1973 horror flick Theatre of Blood.

Pemberton and Shearsmith are all about homage: a bit of Doctor Who here, a touch of Seventies B-movie there. Inside No 9’s format of twisty one-offs is a direct descendant of ITV’s Tales of the Unexpected. And yet it is so absolutely its own thing. Only they could have written it; only they could ever do this much (stretch your arms as wide as they’ll go) in so little time (half an hour).

In the episode Private View, guests were invited to the Nine Gallery in somewhere Hoxtonish. This motley crew, handpicked to represent several of the more unedifying aspects of 21st-century Britain, comprised Carrie (Morgana Robinson), a reality-TV star; Patricia (Felicity Kendal), a smutty novelist; Kenneth (Pemberton), a health and safety nut; and Maurice (Shearsmith), an art critic. Hard on their heels came Jean (Fiona Shaw), a wittering Irishwoman with gimlet eyes. However, given that they were about to be bloodily picked off one by one, at least one of them was not what she seemed. “I’m due at Edwina Currie’s perfume launch later,” Carrie yelped, as it dawned on her that the pages of Grazia might soon be devoting a sidebar to what Towie’s Mark Wright wore to her funeral.

Private View satirised a certain kind of contemporary art, all bashed up mannequins and blindingly obvious metaphors. Admittedly, this isn’t hard to do. But at least Pemberton and Shearsmith take for granted the sophistication of their audience. “A bit derivative of Ron Mueck,” said Maurice, gazing coolly at one of the installations. “But I like the idea of a blood mirror.” The duo’s determination to transform themselves from episode to episode – new accent, new hair, new crazy mannerisms – calls Dick Emery to mind. They’re better actors than he was, of course; they’re fantastic actors. But in the context of Inside No 9, even as they disappear, they stick out like sore thumbs, just as he used to. They’re the suns around which their impressive guest stars orbit. They may not always have the biggest parts, but they nearly always get the best lines. You need to watch them. For clues. For signs. For the beady, unsettling way they reflect the world back at you.

What astonishes about this series, as with the two before it, is its ability to manage dramatic shifts in tone. Plotting is one thing, and they do that as beautifully as Roald Dahl (the third episode, The Riddle of the Sphinx, which revolved around a crossword setter, was a masterclass in structure). But to move from funny to plangent and back again is some trick, given the limitations of time and the confined spaces in which they set the stories. In Diddle Diddle Dumpling, Shearsmith’s character found a size-nine shoe in the street and became obsessed with finding its owner, which was very droll. But the real engine of the piece, slowly revealed, was grief, not madness (“Diddle-diddle-dumpling, my son John”). You felt, in the end, bad for having sniggered at him.

If you missed it, proceed immediately to iPlayer, offering a thousand thanks for the usually lumbering and risk-averse BBC, which has commissioned a fourth series. One day people will write learned papers about these shows, at which point, jargon permitting, I might discover just how Maurice managed to live to fight another day.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution