ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT TO SHUT DOWN?
It’s amazing that we haven’t all morphed into robots given that the average amount of time spent on screens – playing video games, texting, tweeting, Skyping, surfi ng – is now seven and a half hours a day for children and eight hours for adults (in the US); the same time, if not more, that we spend asleep. And this is a low estimate. According to scientists, we consume three times more information per day than we did in 1960. In terms of IQ this is great news – we’re cleverer than our grandparents, who were cleverer than their grandparents; a generational growth called the Flynn effect. In terms of problem-solving and forming ideas, however, it’s a train wreck.
Creativity is defi ned as the production of something original and useful. It can be tested using the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking, where children are asked to look at a toy and fi nd ways to improve on it; there are no right or wrong answers. What researchers are fi nding is that the act of buzzing between ipads and smartphones, while creating new superhighways in the brain, is closing down the rambling country paths where divergent thinking happens. Given that childhood creativity is a much stronger indication of future creative accomplishment than IQ (three times so), we have reason to be worried. Several books, including
The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember by the technology writer Nicholas Carr, describe the effects that so much screen life is having on our delicate, malleable brains. The constant bombardment of information is, he argues, making us shallow, distracted and inattentive. ‘ The more we use the web, the more we train our brains to be distracted, to process information very quickly and efficiently but without sustained information [concentration or retention],’ he writes.
The key to memory consolidation, or depth of understanding, is attentiveness; the opposite of what happens when we text, chat, surf and tweet at the same time. The idea of multitasking was shredded by scientists some time ago. We actually don’t multitask, we switch rapidly between each task, and in the process lose most of the information (up to 75 per cent) that we just acquired. Multitasking also makes us unhappy. The psychologist Daniel Gilbert makes the connection between being fully immersed in a task and fulfi lment: occupied minds (the artist at work or a child playing an imaginary game), also known as ‘ being in the flow’, are the least likely to succumb to depression.
This ‘ continuous partial attention’ as it is also called, extends into our off-screen life, making us distracted,