P. T. Barnum wrote a wonderful essay in 1880 titled The Art of Money Getting or Golden Rules for Money Making.  Among other maxims, Barnum says this:  "When a man's undivided attention is centered on one object, his mind will constantly be suggesting improvements of value, which would escape him if his brain was occupied by a dozen different subjects at once."

Back in 2010 Nicholas Carr, former executive editor of the Harvard Business Review, wrote an influential book called The Shallows:  What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains.  It sounded the alarm about the discomfiting implications of our manic connectivity, our cyber hyper activity.  

Carr first became alarmed when he found himself unable to concentrate as he sat down to read a book.  He couldn't focus because of his longing for and growing addiction to the excitement of his pinging technology.  In 2010 he pointed to significant neuroscientific evidence that the internet was turning us in "scattered and superficial thinkers."  In The Shallows he said:  "Over the last few years, I've had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory."

Well, Mr. Carr is back.  He wrote an essay last Saturday on the front page of the Wall Street Journal review section titled, "How Smart-Phones Hijack Our Minds."  He does a compelling summation of the current neuroscience research on iPhoneology.

The news is not good.

In study after study Carr documents how mounting and variegated scientific studies make clear that smart phone use---even just seeing a smart phone on the table or hearing one vibrate--blocks clear thinking and capacity for problem solving.  Carr feels that, as we grow more addicted to our devices, our intellects are declining.

For example, a 2015 Journal of Experimental Psychology study of 166 subjects found focus immediately wavered when phones beeped or buzzed.  The subjects' work declined significantly, even if they didn't answer.  Carr notes the research of Dr. Adrian Ward of the University of Texas and his colleagues who show that students with phones in front of them did notably poorer than students who kept their phones in their pockets or at home.  As the smart phone's proximity increased, brain power decreased.

Yet another study published in Applied Cognitive Psychology (this April) tested 160 students at the University of Arkansas at Monticello.  Students who didn't bring their phones to class scored a full letter higher than students who brought their phones, even though the latter students didn't use their phones.

Or note a study of 91 secondary schools in the U.K., published in Labour Economics.  It found that when schools banned smart phones, student scores went up substantially--and the weakest students' scores went up the most.

Carr notes that scientists know the brain is a monitoring system, as well as a thinking system.  Attention will always go to media devices with the most "salience."  (Salience is defined by Merriam-Webster as "the quality of being particularly noticeable or important.")  He quotes Adrian Ward as saying smart phones are designed to provide "supernormal stimulus."   They are designed to be: a mailbox, a newspaper, a TV, a radio, a photo album, a public library, and a boisterous party attended by everyone you know.  Electronic bread and circuses.  Yahoo!  Who wouldn't prefer to go there?  Carr feels the smart phone is essentially designed for distractive addiction, making us unthinking I-zombies.

But there is potentially a worse problem:  The smart phone allows us to off-load the work of remembering to our technology.  After all, why remember things when answers are always at our fingertips?  The problem is that we no longer are laying a fecund bed for our thinking and our creative process to flourish in.  Carr quotes psychologist William James from an 1882 lecture as saying, "The art of remembering is the art of thinking."  Says Carr, "Only by encoding information in our biological memory can we weave the rich intellectual associations that form the essence of personal knowledge and give rise to critical and conceptional thinking."

Carr points out that "lies and half-truths," recently spread on social media by Russian agents, were only made possible by the electronic sapping of our powers of "discernment."  He quotes novelist Cynthia Ozick as noting that "Data is memory without history."  Smart phone data is that sort of sterile memory.

Thank you, Nicholas Carr.

Published on: Oct 16, 2017