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by Cathy Vandewater | April 26, 2012


Facebook gets a lot of flack for reducing the quality of its users' social lives, but what if the same could be said of information, and how the internet trains us to handle it?

It's easier than ever to have access to answers to questions, background on an issue topic, or headlines from the world's news.

But what if, like our approach to relationships on Facebook, our processing of all this wonderful information is being stilted and even eliminated by our constant easy access to it? What's more, how is our reduced focus affecting our performance at work, where critical thinking is a must?

The Huffington Post took to debating this issue with Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, which revealed the many ways in which "internet brain" is affecting how we think, on and offline—and at work.

Here are a few potential pitfalls of instant-gratification connectivity, and what you can do to take back your brain:

1. You may be less able to see the "big picture"

Handling tidbits of unrelated information all day popping up doesn't really demand critical thinking—you can simply glance at a headline and scroll onto the next item. But the human brain doesn't really form concrete ideas without weaving connections between different pieces of information and stimuli. Without the connective tissue of meaning or relevance between tweets and status updates, you may be short-circuiting your mental processes.

Tip: Practice forming a thesis on new information, both online and in real life. Ask yourself—what am I learning here? How does this affect my current views, or my understanding of this topic? In meetings, take notes in groups, sorting "pro" or "con" arguments, noting questions you have about what you're hearing. Make a decision on what your overall purpose for learning is, and you may surprise yourself with your ease of absorbing—and retaining—new ideas.

2. You may be instant gratification seeking

With fresh information, feedback, and entertainment constantly streaming through your twitter feed, the offline working world can seem impossibly dull. You might find it's difficult to focus on a single task, for lack of a "refresh" key. You'll also be much more prone to distraction, as the internet trains your brain to react to "newness" with a hit of dopamine—leading you to check G-chat the second you hear its "new message" sound go off.

Tip: Practice distraction sobriety: go cold turkey of gadgets, instant messaging, and "feeds" for short periods of time throughout the day. You may not realize how dependent you are on the stimuli until you're deprived of it, or how much you can accomplish when you tune into your thoughts, instead of everyone else's.

3. It might be harder for you to separate the important from the trivial

Call it the "Yahoo" effect; on the internet, whatever's new on your screen is immediately recognized by your brain as the most important item—whether the headline you're reading is about a natural disaster or a celebrity haircut. This "newness" effect may diminish your ability to weigh the importance of what you're processing, and its meaning (or lack thereof).  

Tip: Though it's fine to browse with abandon in your free time, be more mindful of the task at hand for work related-surfing. Instead of getting distracted by each new page of information, try to discriminate between information you do and don't need, based on your purpose. What exactly are you looking for? A comprehensive breakdown of what you already know, potential holes in an argument, or supplemental details on a new idea? Know before going in, and make an effort to turn away from information you don't need.

4. You may be limiting your variety (and depth) of experience

User controls and personalization apps may mean you're only exposing yourself to the same sites (and viewpoints, and formats) you're comfortable with. When repeated on a daily basis over long periods of time, you may be stunting your ability to switch between viewpoints, or manners of discourse. Generally, you're training your mind to be less flexible.

Tip: Make it a point to take the road less travelled (by you, anyway). Explore opposing view points, new websites, and avoid tailoring your content filters too much (hint: disable your cookies). But depth of experience shouldn't be an internet-only pursuit: in real life too, practice mixing with diverse groups of people, exploring new neighborhoods, or trying new foods.

The internet, paradoxically, can be a very limited place, depending on how you use it. Practice exposing yourself to new situations and challenges as much as possible to stay mentally limber, and you'll see you work performance, whether online or off, improving.

--Cathy Vandewater,

Read More:
Internet Brain: How Does Online World Affect Your Thinking? (Huffington Post)
Should Facebook Be Allowed at Work?
It's All In Your Head: Success and "The Winner's Brain"


Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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