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Diving and Surfing in the Age of Information

Brain_coralDiver brains and surfer brains are different.  The diver brain thinks deeply and can hold a line of thought for an extended period of time, generally without distraction. Imagine going deep beneath the surface, studying and thinking about the surroundings, carefully maintaining attention.   There are no cell phones, Google, or RSS feeds to interrupt the experience.  In contrast, the surfer brain skims the surface, taking in data and making rapid decisions and judgments about the data.  Stimuli are coming from all directions and the brain has to constantly decide if it is relevant or not.  Much like surfing, it is exciting but the brain quickly fatigues.  Moreover, surfing absolutely precludes the possibility of deep thinking.

In recent weeks, I read The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, who sets up the argument that our brains, due to their neuroplastic nature, adapt to the demands of the environment.  He outlines the changes that likely occurred in the brain as a result of moving from the oral traditions of managing information, to the first methods of recording information on stones and papyrus, to the invention of the printing press and now the Internet.  As information management evolved, some cognitive processes were strengthened and some were weakened.  Today’s brain is a surfer brain but how do we manage information so we can also deep dive?

In the Brain Rules, John Medina addresses attention.  What engages the brain and what distracts it?  He states bluntly that the brain cannot multi-task and he tells the story of his son trying to write a paper for school with 11 other windows open including 2 instant messaging screens!  Each time he has to shift attention, his brain has to engage, disengage, and re-engage somewhere else. This sequence has to occur every time attention is shifted. Studies show that a person who is interrupted takes 50% longer to complete a task and he makes up to 50% more errors in the process!  What’s more, this is an exhausting process.  I wonder how long a surfer could actually surf if he had an endless wave?

So what’s the best brain for the age of information? The answer is both. However, it’s important to know what is approach is called for in a given situation. One does not put on an oxygen tank when he plans to surf and one does not go without one if he plans to dive.   The key to all of this is developing awareness around the different demands that each situations calls for.  Do you have a blog to write?  Then it’s probably a good idea to close the other windows on your computer and turn off your cell phone.  Do you need to research something quickly?  Then Google is your answer, not the stacks at an old university library.

Much of what we do is habitual so we aren’t always aware of whether or not we are using the best approach to get the job done well.  However, a little self-awareness in this area can really pay off!

*This article was featured in Mind Matters, my monthly blog at ICF MN.

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