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Brain Memoirs
Thinking About Thinking
Harold K. Bush

Just over forty years ago, Hal Lindsey published his harrowing account of the apocalypse, The Late, Great Planet Earth. One of Lindsey’s key texts for prophesying the end of the world was Daniel 12:4, which describes a time when many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased.” Little did he know, in the early 1970s, how prescient those words would become for today’s “millennials” in the light of the Internet’s climb to cultural dominance. To and fro, indeed.

Given our peripatetic tendencies, some educators are becoming alarmist. Recently, it has come to our attention that we may be facing a readerly apocalypse, that our brains are being radically rewired, and that the mark of the beast may very well be our IP addresses. The reading habits of the young, including university students, are of particular concern, given that they have never known a time when the beast has not been in full control. The dire challenges presented to them by the onset of the Internet revolution are becoming regular headline grabbers in books, magazines, and on the web itself.

Thus, while Hal Lindsey has all but vanished from cultural relevance, a new kind of doomsday prophet is emerging. Some observers have even returned to that obscure verse in Daniel, and the explosive growth of the Internet is usually considered to be the key culprit (along with its ancillary accomplice, smartphones, which like God seem omniscient, omnipresent, and wired to the heavens 24/7). The Internet’s mind-blowing content fosters a disruptive “to-and-fro-ness” within our fitful imaginations, as we surf around the vast ocean of data, never settled for very long on any one site. It promotes, in Nicholas Carr’s famous formulation, a “shallow” encounter with both print and digital texts (The Shallows, 2010). Carr wonders if the Internet is doing more than making us stupid: he asks us to face the possibility that computer technology (the most powerfully transformative medium in world history) has become obsessive for many Westerners. To state it in the booming popular term, the Internet has an uncanny ability to foster neuroplasticity. It also seems to be undermining authority by breeding uncritical acceptance of virtually any opinion. My students nowadays cite with unqualified confidence just about anything they find online in their “research” papers. They are evidently unable to make useful distinctions or discriminations about the trustworthiness of one site over another.

Debatable as Carr’s conclusions may be, what I like most about his bestseller is the introductory material about his own personal changes in reading and thinking. Carr is very good at drawing in older readers (like me) by narrating the changes that he has begun to notice more and more (as I have noticed them, and perhaps as you have). The motif that seems most prominent in Carr’s account is “distraction.” We troll the shallows because our brains have literally been rewired to fixate on an everlasting search for more, and better, and fresher, input. We have a hard time concentrating, says Carr, and that restlessness is becoming a hard-wired feature of our physical brains, a feature that, in Carr’s view, is contributing to human stupidity. His most sinister culprit is Google, for its unwieldy stake in our growing obtuseness, as famously stated in the title of his cover-essay in The Atlantic (“Is Google Making Us Stupid?” July/August 2008).

Carr’s tale is part of a growing trend in some sectors of the publishing world right now, a genre I would like to call “brain memoirs.” These are the autobiographical musings of brains in transition, thoughtful accounts of the plasticity of one’s brain. Brain memoirs can take several forms, such as that of the quirky book called Losing It, by William Ian Miller (2011), much of which describes how aging affects our reading habits and memories (Losing It also might scare the hell out of anyone over fifty). Miller’s book is a metacognitive study of a brain looking at itself through the lens of aging and classical literature. Another example is Alan Jacobs’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (2011), a beautifully written account of reading by a lifelong reader who frets over his changing readerly habits. Jacobs hits notes of mild despair and warns us against the monster of electronic media (even as he learns to like his shiny new Kindle). And like Carr, Jacobs is extremely articulate about the titular topic of “distraction.”

Perhaps most influential in academic circles is Jaron Lanier’s quirky yet, at times, moving manifesto of 2010, the title of which prophetically captures the author’s angst: You Are Not a Gadget. Lanier’s emotional plea for human dignity is reminiscent of the great scene in the film Network (1976), with countless disturbed Americans leaning out their windows to yell to the winds, “I’m as mad as Hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” Lanier’s jeremiad about the penetration of the digital into almost every area of our lives is additionally provocative given his own legendary status as famed programmer and innovator of such concepts as “virtual reality,” a phrase he is said to have coined, and the use of “avatars” as graphic depictions of users online. Since he is widely considered one of the chief architects of the Internet as we now encounter it every day, Lanier’s resounding critique of its dehumanizing and anti-intellectual effects is trenchant and highly informed.

These and other forceful volumes are taking advantage of the wave of popular neuroscience that has emerged recently. Thanks in large part to the extremely sophisticated machinery available to research scientists today, in tandem with the highly creative experiments that psychiatrists and neuroscientists come up with for using those machines, we have learned more in the last twenty years about the way the brain works and which areas do what types of thinking than in all of human history before. This publishing boom began with the extremely successful works of Malcolm Gladwell, especially his wonderfully-titled and well-written volume Blink (2007), which has set the bar for sales and slickness, and has become the popular primer on the brain’s plasticity (its ability to reform itself and establish new connections). Gladwell illustrates the brain’s ability to “thin-slice” reality: to “know” something in the twinkling of an eye, thus the title Blink. And Gladwell has famously exploited the flourishing neuroscience of the past two decades, sometimes to much critical scorn for his non sequiturs and overgeneralizations. (More nuanced and motivated readers might go on to Norman Doidge’s influential 2007 volume, The Brain that Changes Itself.) Despite the book’s flaws of methodology and logic, Blink is compelling reading (as are his other volumes, especially The Tipping Point [2007] and Outliers [2011]), and Gladwell remains the pop-guru of this emerging field.

Combining vast scientific data with the popular, narrative-driven exposition perfected by Gladwell, many other interesting books have appeared recently in this emerging genre. Two of the most popular of 2012 have been Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer and The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. Both are filled with intriguing stories and personalities, and both are good at introducing (some of) the scientific data to general readers. In all, the books mentioned here so far, along with numerous others (many of which are often featured prominently on the front shelves at Barnes and Noble) comprise a growing and influential subfield in popular non-fiction. We should also remember that this genre of pop-scholarship hardly existed as recently as ten years ago. Thus, it seems that such “brain memoirs” and related studies of the brain “thinking about thinking” are here to stay.

And yet, hardly anyone has thought much or written about the implications of these materials for the study and practice of spirituality. For readers of this journal, that perspective would feature most prominently Christian beliefs and disciplines. And so I want to conclude by asking: What is the upshot of these findings for us as Christians? How are we to remain as “wise as serpents, and as innocent as doves” in light of the growing body of literature about our brains and our lifelong stewardship of them? And how might we augment a pious and robust spiritual practice with the help of the findings of current brain science?

A full and satisfying set of responses to these challenging questions is well beyond the scope of this essay. It would be a great book to write, one day. But for now, I would like to speak personally about how some of these insights have had an effect on my own thinking. As such, perhaps this is one more attempt—on a very small scale—of writing a brief version of a brain memoir—in this case, my own.

One very intriguing insight that is becoming clear in contemporary neuroscience is that we have the ability to “program,” or manipulate for good, our own brains, a technique that can allow us to find increasing happiness in repetitive, habitual activities. The more we do something regularly, the more joyful and peaceful the activity becomes. In other words, through habits and exercise and discipline, even hard work like scholarship, or weightlifting, can become satisfying and foster happiness. Habits of discipline and practice eventually bring us more and more joy, and this seems likely for just about anything we do habitually—both good habits and bad habits, so beware. What at first seems like boring and repetitive work—practicing piano, gardening, walking the dogs—can end up becoming an almost addictive behavior that we feel compelled to do every day.

To say it another way: If we do something mindfully, over and over, with patience and close observation, there is great joy to be found there. One intriguing book that documents this is titled simply, Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier (2007).  Thanks! was written by Robert Emmons, editor of a prominent psychology journal. The upshot here is that thankfulness is largely a learned behavior. The more we practice being thankful, the more thankful we become, intuitively. If we telescope this out to all of the virtues, or the “fruits of the spirit” (Galatians 5), we might think about how fruitful attitudes like love, joy, peace, and patience are also things we can practice, improve at, and allow to become instinctive. Just like free throws in basketball, or difficult bar chords like F on a guitar, they become internalized.

These may be obvious pointers regarding how our brains work and reconnect in productive ways, but I also think we must beware that we do not become “shallow” readers or shallow followers of God. We need to keep working at the deep things, pushing ourselves to read the deep books, focusing on the deep conversations. All of these activities are under siege in our 24/7 digital world, and I hope this will not sound too dire or too pretty. But yes, I am concerned: perhaps not so concerned as Nicholas Carr (let alone Hal Lindsey), but seriously wondering how I can mindfully practice a kind of distance from the more sinister influences of the Internet and other technologies. To be blunt: I worry about how my own brain is changing, in many ways negatively, as it has been shaped by digital technologies. It is harder to read for long periods of time; I’m much more easily distracted; and in short I often find myself longing for “connection,” hoping for that certain email (usually disappointed, by the way), or just surfing around and seeing what is new in the world. But even as my MacBook boots up, I recall a wistful observation from Marilynne Robinson: “I miss civilization, and I want it back.”

And so, in that spirit, I would like to end with a very brief list of ideas about how to balance our digital lives.

Digital fasting: I try to turn off the computer from about midday Saturday through Monday morning. And yet it is hard; very hard. I do not always make it.

Reading out loud long passages, including whole chapters from the Bible: we are doing this weekly in a study group I lead. Americans have almost forgotten how to listen to heightened speech.

Refusing the tyranny of the urgent that is rampant among my students and their occasionally annoying or insulting emails: I encourage face-to-face encounters that seem to me more humane than code on a screen.

Often leaving behind my cellphone: especially on walks or hikes, but also at the bookstore or other shopping venues, at films or concerts, parties or dinners, or other events. Certainly church (every week several cellphones ring in the sermon; I guess I just don’t hear them during the worship). Frankly, I am astonished by the number of lit-up screens that dot darkened theaters these days, and I often have to ask other audience members to please shut it off.

Download articles and print them out to read: too much staring into screens already.

Silence. As much and as long as possible, in a host of different manners and settings throughout my week.

I am sure there are many other practices that the spiritually-inclined have devised to wrestle against the imposing forces of the Internet in our lives. And honestly I would love to hear about them: please send me an email and tell me about them. But in closing, it strikes me that I do not wish to come across holier than thou in any of this. I am struggling with it all too. Like the authors mentioned above, I am becoming ever more alert to the ways my brain seems to have changed from younger days. Part of it is surely simple aging. But part of it is all this electronic noise and the concomitant “shallow” encounters with the newest, the flashiest. Probably if you have read this far, you are wrestling too.

So let us just say it this way: We all need to be mindful, as stewards of those wonderful organs we call brains, of how we form them through habit—lest we be drawn even further into the maw of the beast (is that too apocalyptic?). The good news is that we can do it; neuroscience now supports a view that there are specific, habitual acts of moral agency humans can deploy in the interests of their brains. It is ennobling to discover that we can in large part co-create the kind of brain we would like to have, and that it is up to each of us to nurture and cultivate our brains from today and through the balance of our earthly lives. All of this, however, does require work, and echoing most of the authors above, perhaps that is the key message I would like to impress upon this generation of frenetic, millennial college students—and myself. But after all, maybe it is not all so fresh. Henry David Thoreau wrote similarly over 160 years ago: “As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.”

And so I ask you, dear reader:  what sorts of thoughts do you wish to dominate your life?

 

Harold K. Bush, author of Lincoln in His Own Time (2011) and Mark Twain and the Spiritual Crisis of His Age (2007), is Professor of English at Saint Louis University. His email address is bushhk@slu.edu, and he welcomes your comments (and confessions) on this article.

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