Five neuroscientists get into a raft. That might be the start of a mildly funny joke, but in this case it’s the premise of an article by Matt Richtel in today’s New York Times, the latest installment in the paper’s series on “computers and the brain.” Richtel accompanies the scientists as they float down a remote stretch of the San Juan River in Utah, beyond the reach of cell towers and wi-fi signals. The impetus for the trip was, Richtel reports, “to understand how heavy use of digital devices and other technology changes how we think and behave, and how a retreat into nature might reverse those effects.”
Two of the neuroscientists start the trip believing that the Net and related technologies can undermine people’s ability to pay attention, impeding deep thinking and even causing psychological problems. The other three are more sanguine about the effects of the technologies. To see what transpires, you’ll need to read the article.
The piece raises one particular idea that I found to be intriguing, and troubling. As the trip proceeds, the scientists begin to wonder “whether attention and focus can take a hit when people merely anticipate the arrival of more digital stimulation”:
“The expectation of e-mail seems to be taking up our working memory,” [Johns Hopkins professor Steven] Yantis says.
Working memory is a precious resource in the brain. The scientists hypothesize that a fraction of brain power is tied up in anticipating e-mail and other new information — and that they might be able to prove it using imaging.
“To the extent you have less working memory, you have less space for storing and integrating ideas and therefore less to do the reasoning you need to do,” says [University of Illinois professor Art] Kramer, floating nearby.
In The Shallows, I review a series of studies that indicate that the fast-paced delivery of messages and other information online overloads working memory, leading to a state of perpetual distractedness. In my research I didn’t come across the idea that the mere anticipation of receiving a fresh burst of information would also add to our cognitive load. But it makes sense. Research shows, for example, that office workers tend to glance at their email inbox 30 or more times an hour, which seems to me to be pretty clear evidence that even when we’re not reading messages we’re thinking about receiving messages – not just emails, but texts, Facebook updates, tweets, and so on.
This would also help explain why the Net continues to distract us even when we’re not online. Part of our mind is still thinking about that new message that might have just arrived in our inbox. What makes that hypothetical unread message particularly distracting is that it could actually be important. You won’t know until you’ve read it. Admit it: The suspense is killing you.