Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Your Brain, Technology and the State of Your Soul

Do you ever:
  • …find yourself frustrated because you went online to get some small piece of information and ended up spending an hour you never intended?
  • …experience anxiety if you don’t check immediately when you hear a ping for a text, email, or phone call?
  • …sit down to read a book and find yourself impossibly distracted?
  • …set aside a time for quiet prayer but feel so antsy you can’t get anything out of it?
  • …constantly feel as if the more you try, the further behind you will be with all the things clamoring for your attention?
If you answered yes to any of these, you are completely normal, but what you may not know is why.  Simply put, over the past ten or fifteen years, your brain and mine have been undergoing a silent restructuring as a result of modern technology and our ubiquitous connections to the virtual world. 
As I shared in last week’s post, our brains are incredibly adaptive, hosting a circuitry that can be wired and rewired over the course of our lives as needed.  This is really good news as we consider that we don’t have to be shaped by past experiences, but can alter the way our brain cells connect in order to change not only how we think or feel, but how we behave. 

But here’s the bad news.  Our brains basically work on a “use it or lose it” principle.  And because we spend so much time mentally connected—to the internet, television, smartphones, tablets etc.—our brains are getting really good at things like skimming for pertinent information, rapid shifts between topics, accessing knowledge on an as-needed basis, and surface-level analysis.   

Because modern technology increasingly rewards this kind of activity, we have become mentally dependent upon it—our brains in essence, require it.  In his book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains, Nicolas Carr likens us to lab rats who continually push a lever to get a reward of some sort of social interaction or intellectual nourishment.

What's Really at Stake?
Why is this bad news, especially in light of all the benefits technology has produced?  There are dozens of concerns that are causing neuroscientists, educators, doctors, and psychologists to speak out, but perhaps the most critical is that because of the way the brain works, we are losing our capacity for things like reflection, contemplation, meditation, or even deep thinking or reading.  

In other words, as spiritual people, we are in danger of wiring out our ability to connect with God and other human beings in profoundly meaningful ways.  Carr writes:
As the time we … spend hopping across links crowds out the time we devote to quiet reflection and contemplation, the circuits that support those old intellectual functions and pursuits weaken and begin to break apart. The brain recycles the disused neurons and synapses for other, more pressing work. We gain new skills and perspectives but lose old ones.
There are a plethora of books and articles addressing this.  In her book Alone Together, Clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle explains why we find it so hard to focus in quiet moments, noting that when we try to reclaim concentration, we are “literally at war with ourselves.” 

The Coming Dark Age?
Another journalist actually contends that we are entering into a new dark age, soberly warning:
Amid the glittering promise of our new technologies and the wondrous potential of our scientific gains, we are nurturing a culture of social diffusion, intellectual fragmentation, sensory detachment.  In this new world, something is amiss…The way we live is eroding our capacity for deep, sustained, perceptive attention—the building block of intimacy, wisdom, and cultural progress.  (Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, p. 13 by Maggie Jackson)
Interest in the threat of modern technological advances is not some passing fad, but one that is fueling research from every angle across a vast network of disciplines, from academia to medicine to business to science.   

The Church's Strange Silence 
Yet, while a growing cadre of cultural commentators is sounding the alarm, the church seems to be strangely silent. This is perplexing.  Of all those who are affected by this brain restructuring, it seems we as Christ-followers have the most to lose.  How will we experience transformation into his likeness if we can’t seem to engage in practices designed to renew our minds (Romans 12:1-2, Ephesians 4:23)?  How will we come to know him more intimately, something Jesus pointed to as the nexus of eternal life (John 17:3), if we find ourselves incapable of sitting with him in solitude, engaging in meditation upon his Word or contemplation of His person?

Let me quickly point out that I love technology and I am not intimating that we need to go back to some simpler time.  That is not going to happen, and in fact, the pace and quality of life as a result of this technological revolution is only going to become more complex at exponential rates.

But I do want to pose the question—do the tools of technology control you, or do you control them?  Are you a servant to their demands, or do they serve your purposes?  

Your Technology Control Checkup
In case you're not sure, I have put together a brief 10-question survey for you to do a personal check up.  When you finish the survey, go back through and add up the points on each page from the far right column to see your total.  Then check here to see how you did (by the way, I scored 33 out of 50, so obviously I have some work to do!).   Click here for the survey--it can only handle 100 people, so take it soon!  
The point I am trying to make here is simply that we need to be aware of what is taking place and start being proactive about how we invest our time and energy.  

The upside of what we now know about our brains is that not only do we have the ability to alter our this recently developed destructive circuitry, but the Spirit of God is committed to helping us in our weakness (Romans 8:5-11; 26-27).  It will some take time, persistence and discipline, but we can recapture these critical capacities of reflection, quietness and attentiveness.  We can’t afford not to—for ourselves, our children, and the culture in which we live.

Coming next: Simple steps to recover critical spiritual capacities

To order any of my books, or Nicolas Carr's What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, visit my store by clicking here. 

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