At some point, I mean to get back to looking up the research that is said to support Matt Richtel's claims that "the brain is rewired when it is constantly inundated with new information". Right now, though, I'd like to point out that complaints about the distractions of modern life didn't begin when email, texting and hyperlinks started eating our brains. I wouldn't be surprised to find similar sort of complaints from the 13th century about clock towers, but today I'm just going to take things back to 1924, and an article from the New York Times with the headline "This Machine-Made World Conquers One More Rebel".
A square envelope comes in the mail. In the corner is the address of a shop. Inside is a card and on the card is printed: "My telephone number is–"
It is a defeat. The tentacles have reached into another little corner of tranquillity and grasped it and shaken it inside out into the hurly-burly. This man, saying so sententiously "My telephone," was one of New York's valiant few holding off the blessings of civilization. […]
There is a philosophy in this […] It is a philosophy of tranquillity. The trouble with the hum of machines, the philosopher tells you, is that they do not hum steadily enough: there is the peace of the static and the peace of the spinning top, but the jagged city and its machines go by fits, forever speeding and slackening and speeding again, so that there is no certainty.
And of all the machine and instruments, he adds, the telephone is the most persistent and the most penetrating. […]
There's no explicit neuroscience here — or indeed any other claims of scientific support — but the complaint about technology-driven distraction is exactly the same. There's even a bit about experimental withdrawal from networked communications, though the experimenters in this case are children:
They are, in fact, a queer folk, these rebels […] A scattered band, without plan and without hope, […] unnoticed by the mass of the town save now and then when an isolated glimpse of one of them brings snickers.
But is that snicker an expression of mirth or of envy? […] All the pell-mell majority, breaking the day into dots and dashes, following the crowd and making the crowd — how much sympathy, unrecognized and unadmitted, is there here for the man who will not have a telephone?
"None!" a voice shouts above the clatter.
Not so fast. Here are little Charlie and Oscar and Elizabeth, the eldest 11. Perhaps they do not think specifically of telephones, and most likely they would be pleased with the idea of the machines which show plays on a silver-sheet, but anyhow they decide to withdraw from this machine city. They will camp out. So for three days, though within sight of their home, they camp in a near-by part, and all the flash and glitter and otucry of alarms sent over miles of wires fail to reach their fastness. The town reads about the them and pretends to be amused. But at bottom the twon evnives the three youngsters. Camping out — away from all the din, from the autos and the phones! And the town takes to dreaming in the terms of Charlie and the man without a phone: "Peace, comfort, rest; leave the city behind you."
Every generation needs occasional rebel voices raised up in doomed opposition to "the jagged city and its machines":
"It's a revolt," says the man who has come at last to the telephone. "I'm whipped by this phone, I know, but still there are all these signs of revolt. You can meet the city on its own terms in most things, but each of us must have some point of reserve and some refusal; we must to hold our self-respect. It's all increasing in a geometric ratio. If I want to to use the phone once I must use it twenty times, a hundred. But you can see mankind is coming to the limit. Escape. It's trying to find a way of life. It's * * * I say it's–"
But the radio across the street has drowned him out.
One thing puzzles me a bit, though. For the people who think and write like this, it's always the machines — and usually the new machines — that are considered to "break the day into dots and dashes". But there are lots of traditional, entirely unmechanized life situations that involve interruptions at irregular times, or things that go by fits and starts: caring for children, tending bar, standing guard, hunting, fishing.
But I've never heard anyone complain that (say) fishing may release dopamine, which is thought to be involved with addictive behaviors, because "When you check your bobber, when you get a nibble, when a fish hits the hook — you get what they call a dopamine squirt. You get a little rush of adrenaline." Nor does there seem to be any on-going research into the possibility that significant amounts of hunting and fishing may fundamentally alter the frontal lobe during childhood, and that such addictive activities can lead to poor decision-making.
If you think such concerns are too silly to be seriously considered, you might be right. But then please re-read this passage from the web page about Matt Richtel's Fresh Air interview ("Digital Overload: Your Brain On Gadgets", 8/24/2010), and tell me what's different:
He points to one study conducted at Stanford University, which showed that heavy multimedia users have trouble filtering out irrelevant information — and trouble focusing on tasks. Other research, he says, says that heavy video game playing may release dopamine, which is thought to be involved with addictive behaviors.
"When you check your information, when you get a buzz in your pocket, when you get a ring — you get what they call a dopamine squirt. You get a little rush of adrenaline," he says. "Well, guess what happens in its absence? You feel bored. You're conditioned by a neurological response: 'Check me check me check me check me.' "
Richtel says that research is ongoing, particularly into how heavy technology may fundamentally alter the frontal lobe during childhood, how addictive behavior can lead to poor decision-making and how the brain is rewired when it is constantly inundated with new information.