Sunday, January 16, 2011

Of Brains and Books

 “The reading of a sequence of printed pages is valuable not just for the knowledge readers acquired from the author’s words but for the way those words set off intellectual vibrations within their own minds.  In the quiet spaces opened up by the prolonged, undistracted reading of a book, people made their own associations, drew their own inferences and analogies, fostered their own ideas.  They thought deeply as they read deeply.”
Nicholas Carr
“How is the way we read changing? How is the way we write changing? How is the way we think changing?”  These are the questions Nicholas Carr says we need to be asking of ourselves as well as our children.  His book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, is a fascinating exploration of these questions from his own experience, from neuroscientific evidence, from cultural observation, from daily developments in modern technology, and from a historical perspective. 

For me, this book was about two things—the value of reading books and the caution we should have as we enjoy all our technology tools, for they are making permanent changes to our brain.  I hasten to note, I am not a dinosaur, protesting change and our inexorable march into a digital future.  I am, in fact, online almost all day at work and much of the evening, too. Research that used to take days or weeks springs to my screen in seconds. I get impatient when a website is slow in opening, and I’ve come to rely on Google in a symbiotic but perhaps unhealthy fashion. I do social networking and am often an early adapter of technology.  I got my 80 year old mother onto email.

I am a writer, and I am a netizen. But I am first, last, and always a book reader. 

Reading The Shallows, a glimmer of recognition: could it be that the disintegration of my memory and powers of concentration are not just about constant daily stress and/or age, but also, or even largely, my heavy Internet usage?  To paraphrase Nicholas Carr, I miss my old brain!

Carr makes a passionate case for the book as encompassing a set of skills and pleasures we should not want to lose.  “Reading a book was a meditative act, but it didn’t involve a clearing of the mind.  Readers disengaged their attention from the outward flow of passing stimuli in order to engage it more deeply with an inward flow of words, ideas, and emotions. “

While Carr is a heavy user of technology and as addicted to its connectivity as most, he makes a strong case that that very quality as well as speed, and massive amount of information and split-second decision-making  have negative as well as positive impacts.  As he comments, “Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving sea of particles. Once I was a scuba driver in the sea of words.  Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

Further, “[t]he Net is, by design, an interruption system, a machine geared for dividing attention,” with its multiple windows open and applications running simultaneously, and the constant influx of messages through email and social media.  And we are by no means unwilling participants in this system.  “We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the division of our attention and the fragmentation of our thoughts, in return for the wealth of compelling or at least diverting information we receive,” says Carr.  

Links are both possibilities and problems. Even if we don’t click on them, they still cause us to stop at each one for a fraction of an instant to evaluate whether we should click or not, whether it might be interesting or valuable.  It takes some of our precious cognitive power to evaluate links and navigate paths through them.  This increased “cognitive load” does not serve us well and we don’t digest and retain as much.  As the author says, the medium obscures meaning.  Endless symbols and scraps of information or commentary or videos or photos compete for our attention. “Try reading a book while doing a crossword puzzle; that’s the intellectual environment of the Internet.”

Because this time doing things like sending bite-sized information and scanning web pages crowds out time writing sentences and paragraphs and reading deeply,  there are neurological consequences: “[T]he circuits that support those old intellectual functions weaken and begin to break apart…We gain new skills and perspectives but lose old ones.”  Multitasking, as I have often written, is not necessarily our friend. 

Referring again to the shallowness that accompanies our days and nights on the Net, Carr says, “The strip mining of ‘relevant content’ replaces the slow excavation of meaning.” The author cites National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke neurological science unit head, Jordan Grafman, as saying that our increased ability for online multitasking hampers our ability to be creative and think deeply.  University of Michigan neuroscientist David Meyer is quoted on how with multitasking we are “learning to be skillful at a superficial level.”  Carr quotes neuroscientist Michael Merzenich, who says brutally but accurately, multitasking is “training our brains to pay attention to the crap.”  And we hear from Maryanne Wolf, a Tufts University developmental psychologist, that on the web we are “mere decoders of information.” 

The multitasking of reading online versus reading a book is, for me, a contrast of noise vs. quiet. Clutter vs. clarity. Mindlessness vs. mindfulness. Distraction vs. attention.   Shallowness vs. depth.  Speed vs. savoring. Mechanized digital storage vs. meaning and memory. 

The author has a point of view, to be certain, which he backs up with substantial scientific evidence, but this is not to say he doesn’t have fun with his tale.  He also periodically provides perspective to the concerns he raises.  I nod my head in agreement reading Carr’s account of how people complained of feeling overwhelmed at the huge new volume of information flooding their minds—and then am amused to realize that the citizenry he refers to was in the 17th century, reacting to the influx of books and periodicals then. 

Carr quotes Marshall McLuhan from Understanding Media,” A new medium is never an addition to an old one, nor does it leave the old one in peace.  It never ceases to oppress the older media until it finds new shapes and positions for them.”  I struggle with this each and every day both in my day job in publishing and as a freelance writer, and as a reader and a consumer of information.  I ride the wave of technology, but I sometimes do so angrily.  You can force me to change how I write and what media I write for. You can’t force me to change my preferred method of reading.  To Carr’s point that “The mind of the experienced book reader is a calm mind, not a buzzing one,” I reply that I am weary of all the buzzing that has replaced my once calm mind.

 “While experimental evidence is sparse,” the author says it’s logical that our online activities would speed certain kinds of problem solving, and have us process competing informational cues.  The paradoxes are endless, like how we delegate memory to our technology but in doing so lose it in our brains. (How many of your friends’ phone numbers don’t you know because they’re programmed into your mobile?)

I read in horror as Carr quotes Steven Johnson on how writers and publishers will be factoring Google rankings into their craft.  And that with digitalization of books, so that they will no longer be finished products but amorphous works that can be revised indefinitely, Carr says,  “It seems likely that removing the sense of closure from book writing will, in time, alter writers’ attitude to their work.  The pressure to achieve perfection will diminish, along with the artistic rigor that the pressure imposed.” He compares this to the “narrowing of expressiveness and loss of eloquence” that came when email entered the history of correspondence.

But my eyes are straining more and more each day to read the computer screen, despite tricks to increase font size and the huge monitors I’ve got for both my desktop and laptop.  And I’ve been worried recently that my absorption of deep books that used to nourish me and give me a framework for meaningful exploration of life—particularly spiritual reading--seems to have diminished. I grow impatient as I try to concentrate, unable to slow myself down to the speed of reading for riches.

I read with horror about e-books with links in them and how soon social networking features will be incorporated into digital readers, “turning reading into something like a team sport,” with live chats embedded and people cutting and pasting bits of books into new vehicles altogether.

I hate the “crawls” along the bottom of my TV screen and annoying pop-up messages; I sure as hell don’t want them on the pages of my book.  I find many magazines’ attempts to mimic websites lame and become angered by the clutter on the page, not so much that information or entertainment is coming in bite-size pieces, but that dozens of different style fonts and colors and tiny print making those pieces impossible to read.  If books start to do this I will be shattered.  They are becoming my only escape from all the noise of modern life.

I think the day the book is gone is the day I will depart this earth, and should I be reborn, please let it be  in a time where the book is revered, or should there be a heaven, please let it have a public library.  

Sunday, January 2, 2011

100 steps to grace for 2011

Note:  This is a guest post from Christopher Foster,

Everybody would like to make their life more fulfilling and meaningful.  As we cross the threshold into the New Year here are 100 ideas to help you find increased happiness and peace in 2011.

 1.  Pick up a stone and admire it for a few moments.

 2.  After you put the stone down look at your hand and admire that.  Have you ever seen a more beautiful creation?

 3.  Put a hand on your belly and breathe with only your belly moving.

 4.  My dad, who was in great shape until he died at 95, used to make a point of thinking of something pleasant before he went to sleep. Try it, see if it works for you.

 5.  Read the 23rd Psalm.

 6.  Read a verse or two from Gitanjali, by Rabindranath Tagore.

 7.  Does life seem transitory to you sometimes?  Consider the possibility that at the core of your being you are immortal and unchanging.

 8.  Look at a photo of your Mom and honor her.

 9.  Don’t look to the world for a sense of importance — look within, to your own being.

 10.  Look up at the sky.

 11.  Consider the timeless words: “My yoke is easy, my burden is light.”

 12.  Be still.

 13.  Be still some more.

 14.  Listen to your own inner voice and trust it.

 15.  Say “thank you” and really mean it.

 16.  Consider the possibility that you don’t have to look for happiness because who you truly are is already happy.

 17.  Do the thing your mind says it doesn’t want to do.

 18.  Trust life.

 19.  Don’t let thoughts dictate your life.

 20.  You don’t have to see thoughts as an enemy — just realize that while thoughts come and go, who you truly are at the core of your being does not come and go.

 21.  Listen to the sweet sound of running water.

 22. Be of equal grace to all you meet.

23.  Thank your spouse or friend for the many gifts they bring to your life.

24.  Know in your heart that life is good and if you play your part and trust life and trust yourself life will unfold as it should.

 25.  Find some ducks somewhere and take a few minutes to admire them.

 26.  It’s never too late to change your mind.

 27. It’s never too late to make an extraordinary discovery — at the core of your being you are already happy.

 28.  Don’t keep your happiness to yourself.  Spread it around.

 29.  Don’t know what to do?  Be still, and listen.  There’s always the right thing to do in any situation.

 30.  Don’t close up when strong feelings come.  I tried it for a long long time, and it doesn’t work.  Let yourself feel whatever it is you are feeling, no matter how painful it may be.  You will make an amazing discovery.  What seemed like sadness, or grief, or fear will change into something altogether different.

 31.  Discover life’s paradox.  Be open to change, soft and yielding as water, but remember you are also strong and nothing worthwhile happens without persistence.

 32.  2011 is a perfect year to get in shape.  Consider going to a gym, if you’ve never been to one before.  You may find it’s a lifesaver.  It’s helped me in many ways.

 33.  Spend more time with Nature.

 34.  Admire the spaciousness of the sky and remind yourself that the spaciousness you see has its origin in you.

 35.  The sky is simply reflects back to you an aspect of your own being, just as a mountain, or a flower, or another person reflect back to you the oneness of all creation.

 36.  Never pass up an opportunity to pat another person’s dog — or of course, your own dog.

37.  If someone has helped you, or done their best to help you, make sure they know how much you appreciate the helpful person that they are.

 38.  If despair is upon you, there is something you should know.  I’ve experienced a lot of tribulation — some of it conscious, some of it unconscious – and I’ve learned that on the other side of despair is joy.

 39.  It’s the joy of our own being, untouched and unchanged by any of the adversities of our life.

40.  We come into this world with a unique gift to give.  We can think of this in external terms, and that’s very appropriate.  But the greatest gift you have to give in 2011 is yourself, your own genuine, timeless presence.

41.  Be thankful for the gift of hearing.  Just listening to some passing geese, or the laughter of a child is more than enough happiness for one day.

42.  Don’t only listen to external sounds.  Listen also to the wisdom of your own spirit speaking to you in the quietness of your heart.

43.  Take courage.  Let 2011 be a year in which a precious goal or dream of yours comes true.

44.  Take patience.  Patience is one of the greatest gifts of the universe.  As long as you are doing the right thing in this moment, offering the very best you can into this moment, why be too concerned about the future?  It will take care of itself, as all the prophets have said.

45.  Take pleasure in little things.

46.  Take pleasure in the chickadee, for instance, and her unique cry as she goes about her business.

47.  Take pleasure in the sight of an old man enjoying his grandchildren.

48.  Take pleasure in thinking about the gift that your own physical body has been to you in your life.

49.  Even if your body is having troubles at the moment, acknowledge, and be thankful for the extraordinary faithfulness it has shown to you all these years.

50.  Don’t be afraid if you lose something precious. There is one thing you can never lose — your own timeless, boundless being.

51.  Sing a new song next time you see your wife, or husband, or friend.  I’m not suggesting that you necessarily sing in a physical sense.  But don’t be afraid to let a part of yourself come out to play that may never have come out to play in your life before.

52.  Sing a new song next time you vacuum the house.

53.  Sing a new song next time you go to the coffee shop, or to the supermarket, or to a football game.  Just because we have done something before doesn’t mean we have to experience it in exactly the same way the next time, does it?

54.  Life is a victorious experience when we live it properly.  I truly believe this.

55.  There are riches and wonders waiting to be revealed in your life that I bet you have never even dreamed of yet.

56.  Persistence is an aspect of our own divine nature. There is always more persistence available to you in life.

57.  Mind you, it’s worth remembering that life has a magical, spontaneous quality to it, so that we don’t get so hung up on finishing something that we lose any pleasure or enjoyment in what we’re doing.

58. As Khalil Gibran aptly said, Who bakes without love bakes a bitter bread that feeds but half man’s hunger.

59.  When in doubt, smile.

60.  I find doing a little abdominal breathing is a wonderful way to reduce stress and get more grounded.

61.  It’s good to be whole. But let us not forget that wholeness already exists.  All we really have to do is let the wholeness of our own being express more fully through us — in 2011 or any other year.

62.  You may already do some Chi Gung, but if not, look into it.  It’s a great way to keep in shape at every level, especially as we age.

63.  A wonderful resource on Chi Gung is a book called, “The Way of Energy,” by Master Lam Kam Chuen.

64.  Be kind to yourself.

65.  Some words I like to say to myself once in a while: “Everything is going to be all right.”

66.  Reminds me of some words from an old Caribbean song: “Every little thing’s going to be all right.”

67.  Don’t forget the sea, and the wonderful healing energy of the sea.  My wife JoAnn and I live in Denver.  I know I need to see the sea again.  It’s a big priority for me in 2011.

68.  Just listening to the roar of the sea, the steady background noise that it makes, is uplifting for anybody.

69.  The roar of the sea is primeval, like the roar of a lion.  May we never lose either one.

70.  Stop and listen to the sound that the universe makes in your ear.

71.  Stop and note the magnificence of the universe as it displays itself in a fine painting, or in a mountain, or in a brightly colored butterfly.

72.  Be true to yourself.  Honor yourself.  Above all, listen to the voice of your own being in the quietness of your heart.

73.  Feel the skin of your own hand.  Isn’t it a miracle?

74.  Pick a blade of grass this summer and stick it between your teeth like you did when you were young.

75.  My favorite picture hangs above my computer.  It shows a young fox at rest on a mound of earth with a piece of grass in his teeth, eyes shut and face aglow with bliss.

76.  Bliss is our true nature. Don’t let go of your bliss, follow it wherever it takes you.

77.  Don’t be too quick to form an opinion of someone – it takes time to really get to know another person.

78.  I don’t know if this post will work or not.  It’s a bit experimental.  If it does work, or even if it doesn’t, would you write and let me know?

79.  Who are you, really?  Suppose you are an aspect of Eternal Love finding expression through human form?  Our forms come and go — but the love that you truly are has neither beginning nor end.

80. “Love never fails.”  Were more beautiful words ever written?

81.  Where are the limits of love?  Does love have any limits?

82.  Love is not bound by time.  I just thought of my mother, long gone, and felt a closeness with her that is as strong now as it ever was.

83.  If love transcends time, perhaps it also transcends space?

84. If the truth of your being is love, and you get on a plane and go somewhere, do you really go somewhere?

85.  Perhaps, when we think we travel, or moving from one town to another, we jump to a conclusion.

86.  Perhaps the truth of who you are has not moved at all?

87.  Perhaps here is a secret of true peace in life.

88.  Got to say a word in support of ravens.  I love ravens, love hearing them call.  I’m so glad that this townhome complex where we live has a resident flock of ravens I can listen to and watch and love.

89.  Don’t only look for joy in big things like a relationship, or a trip to Hawaii, or Bali.  Look for joy in little things like going for a walk, drinking a cup of tea, or chatting with a friend.

90.  Joy is a gift from the universe.  It’s part of our divine nature.

91.  Let the joy that is already inside you be given expression freely through you in these coming months, to bless your own life and the lives of others.

92.  Joy is our true name.  It was our name before we came into this world, and it will still be our name when we say goodbye to our earthly body that has been our home and friend in this life.

93. It’s never too late to open your heart to joy. It’s simple mathematics.  The more joy and love you express, the more joy and love you know.

94. Same thing with freedom.  The more we open our mind and our heart to the true freedom that already exists within our own being regardless of circumstance the more we experience the truth of freedom in our lives.

95.  Joy and freedom.  Freedom and joy.  Such beautiful words, aren’t they?

96. I’m writing this post in a little study in a sweet little townhome complex in Denver, Colorado.  Wherever you are, and wherever you live, I want to say “hi,” and reach out a hand of friendship and blessing to you.  I wish you a truly happy, fulfilling and creative new year.

97. We are not as separate from one another as we may have thought.

98.  You are part of a beautiful, harmonious whole.

99.  You are loved by this Whole.

100.  May you be strengthened and sustained by love as you move into whatever 2011 holds in store for you.

Note:  This is a guest post from Christopher Foster,