Outsourcing memory and wired for distraction

If you are scanning this article—stop—you need to read it. Not because I am important, but because your mind matters!

Over the last few years I have had a minor, but growing, niggle about my ability to remember and make connections with clarity and sharpness. Was it simply growing older, or the impact of several general anaesthetics in a short space of time, or was it something else?

I began to suspect my use of the internet/computer/email/facebook was contributing to a disconnectedness and fragmentedness in my own thinking. I would be working at something at my desk, and after a few minutes reading, I’d look up and check my email, follow a link, and then return to reading.

I read a little (Tim Challies’ book, The Next Story) and found that we were indeed rewiring our minds for distraction—consider how often you check your phone—there has been no alert, but we check nonetheless—mid sentence or in the middle of another task.

But there is more to it than simply distraction. I found I was less able to remember what I had read, but was able to remember where to find it—eg. “I read about that recently in such and such a book. It was really helpful”, but ask me what was helpful, and I’d be stuck! My mind seemed to have become like a web browser—retaining little, but filled with bookmarks of where to find things. It was as if I had outsourced my memory to the internet! And my use of the internet had in return trained me to just remember where to find things, rather than the actual content—even if it was in a book rather than the web.

Our use of technology radically shapes and reshapes our cognitive processes. It has always been this way, from the wheel, to the clock, to the book. But where the internet differs is that it seriously overloads our working memory to the extent that we cannot file and filter the information we take in.

Nathan Eshelman’s excellent post called us to reassess how the internet and social media eats our time. I want to follow that by calling you to assess how it eats your brain!

Nicholas Carr’s book “The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember” has been around since 2010, but I’ve only just read it. It is essential reading for those who care about how the internet impacts our thinking and remembering.

Carr’s own experience was similar to mine, and he traces its roots to the rise of the internet as an irreplaceable tool in modern living. He looks at how its form, more than its content, shapes and reshapes our neural pathways, and impacts our ability to think and remember.

With endless links needing assessment—will I click or not, is this worthwhile or not—we become experts in decision making, but that constant need to make decisions, coupled with the torrent of information linked to everything we read online, overloads our working memory and impedes our ability to retain. And not just retain the stuff we are working at on the web, but other stuff too.

Carr writes, “The influx of competing messages that we receive whenever we go online not only overloads our working memory, it makes it much harder for our frontal lobes to concentrate our attention on any one thing. The process of memory consolidation can’t even get started. And, thanks once again to the plasticity of our neuronal pathways, the more we use the Web, the more we train our brain to be distracted… Our brains become adept at forgetting, inept at remembering.”

“As our use of the Web makes it harder for us to lock information into our biological memory, we’re forced to rely more and more on the Net’s capacious and easily searchable artificial memory, even if it makes us shallower thinkers.”

That last sentence is sobering. As Christians we are called by God to hide his word in our hearts, to meditate, to think deeply, and to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Unthinking use of the internet militates against this. More than ever we need to “gird up the loins of our minds” (1 Peter 1:13) not just about what we think, but to guard the very process of thinking itself.

Already this article is too long for our web generation—but I will write a few more lines in the hope that we can spark a quiet rebellion.

Due to the plasticity of the brain and its neural pathways, this situation is remediable. In fact one of the wonderful things about reading Carr’s book is to see how utterly incredible and complex the brain is—I found myself in awe and worship of our creator on several occasions.

So let’s browse and surf with intentionality. Let’s limit our distractions so we can guard our cognitive processes. Here’s a few suggestions:

  • Build space in. Give yourself space after you have read something to let it sink in. Look for ways to reinforce it, e.g. talking with others about it.
  • Don’t fill space up—i.e. always using social media/surfing as a way to fill in a few spare moments. Give your mind a break, to let it consolidate whatever you have just been working at.
  • Work on memorizing—memorize chunks of scripture—and use your spare moments to recall and meditate. That way you are strengthening your mind and sanctifying your heart in one go!
  • Work on depth—depth in your reading and thinking. Force your mind to work. Give it space to work, away from Wifi, and cell phone. Limit interruption.
  • Consider paper—Reading a physical book imprints much more on the memory than we realise. Consider whether printed matter is a better way to read what really matters—especially your Bible.
  • Surf judiciously—Realising that the surfing, more than the content, is shaping your mind. In a telling image one writer describes the content of media as “the juicy meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind”—except in this case, the mind itself is what is being robbed.
Mark Loughridge

Mark Loughridge

Mark pastors 2 churches in the Republic of Ireland. He is married with three daughters. Before entering the ministry he studied architecture. He enjoys open water swimming, design, and watching rugby.

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