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The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains

A young friend recently introduced me to this book, which is required reading in a local high school curriculum.  I was really not in the mood to read this sort of thing at the time, but once I started it, I was hooked. Drawing from sources in neuroscience, philosophy, history, and literature, Carr proposes that technology steadily alters our patterns of thinking. Our use of the Internet in particular is rewiring our brains in the areas of working memory, long-term memory, attention, and comprehension.  In a nutshell, the process goes something like this: with the abundance of information in hypertext links, posts, updates, emails, ads, crawls, and flippers, and various other pings, and dings that we’re multitasking,  our  concentration becomes fragmented, which overloads working memory, which causes information to not be processed deeply enough to find its way into long-term memory, which interferes with comprehension. So our brains get really busy and excited when immersed in electronic media, but not  in a way that promotes contemplation and comprehension.  Sustained attention is necessary to forge those deeper links.

The chapter on memory was my favorite — well-researched and simply explained.  The ideas raise all sorts of interesting questions.  What are the long-term consequences of outsourcing our cognition to machines – on an individual and societal level?

Will habitual use of electronic media, particularly among children, erode the desire, or even the ability, to develop sustained attention? Being in schools and classrooms across districts everyday of the week I see more and more “smart” technology being implemented in classrooms at earlier and earlier ages.  Given the hand-brain-cognition connection (see Levin’s book The Hand for a comprehensive review of that topic) do preschoolers really need to have more iPads instead of 3-dimensional toys to manipulate with their hands? What are the gains and are they worth the cost?

Spring1

“The daffodils are blooming!” Kiki announced in a lilting voice as she breezed in the door.

The granddaughter, who didn’t know the difference between a daffodil and a geranium – and who didn’t much care, sat in the kitchen playing Donkey Kong on Colecovision. Her eyes were nearly glassed over from staring for so long into the screen and her thumb muscles ached from over use.

This would not do.

“Come outside and see!”

The glassy eyes slid her direction for a moment, then back to the screen, where the jumpman had just cleared another barrel.

“Come on, Valley.”

A barrel hit the jumpman. The child groaned. So much for saving the princess. She sighed, turned off the little TV, and stood up to get this over with.

Outside, the daffodils were indeed blooming.  Not just blooming – they looked like they were singing.  Trumpeting nearly.

“Heralding spring,”  Kiki said.

They looked like fairy princess dresses – perhaps the princess was saved afterall.

He fires up his joint and takes a deep inhale.

She watches, a little afraid and a lot disappointed, as his eyes go flat and boring.  It’s stinky and smoky and dark and she’s cold.  She doesn’t like it here.

He is usually so much more fun than this, especially when they watch Saturday morning rasslin’ together. Between commercial breaks he roars and picks her up over his head like he’s Jerry “The King” Lawler and she’s Junkyard Dog.  He turns in a slow circle showing his imaginary audience how strong he is while she clings to his wrists for dear life and screams, “No! No! Put me down!”

“Down?? You want down?”

“Wait! No! Stop! Please! Maaaaamaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!!”

She screams in terrified delight as he body slams her down on the couch.

She lies there stunned for the 3 count while he flexes and makes his face look mean like he’s the Incredible Hulk. Then he lumbers off to the kitchen to get a Coke out of the ‘fridge.

Momma always yells at him at this point in the routine, “Stop doing that! You’ll break her ribs!”

“Well, I have to win the match somehow,” he replies.

“I mean it. Don’t do that. You could make her lungs collapse and kill her.”

“Nah, I’m just toughenin’ her up.”

Saturday morning rasslin’ is the real He-man rasslin’ and definitely not to be confused with that “kissy face” wrestling that they do in the Ol’-limp-kicks.  She is still trying to work out what exactly the Ol’-limp-kicks is.  It is a sports thing, she knows. They’ve explained that it happens every 4 years.  She is 4.  It is something to do with her birthday?  They said no. They said it happened even before she was ever around – before she was even thought of.  There is something deeply suspicious about this.  How could things go on without her around? The question makes her head feel funny, so she thinks about something else.

She wishes it was Saturday morning.

But it’s not Saturday. He passes the joint to his friend, who takes it, glances at her, then back and him. Between hits he asks, “Do you think she knows what we’re doing?”

Of course she knows what they’re doing. They’re being bad.  Momma would be so mad. Daddy smokes Lucky Strikes, which is bad Momma says.  But Daddy doesn’t smoke “wacky tabacky,” which is way more bad.  She doesn’t say any of this. Even though she is looking at them, they are looking through her and talking about her like she doesn’t understand English or like she is deaf.

She knows about being deaf because a really long time ago, when she was 3, she lived in Texas and her best friend in the whole world lived next door and she was deaf for real.  Daddy had explained it all to her then. He told her that her best friend was deaf and dumb.  It’s not nice to call someone dumb, she told him.  He said he wasn’t being mean – it wasn’t that kind of dumb.

He said, “You know how some people can’t hear and they’re called deaf?”

Well, no, in fact, she didn’t know anything about that. How come they couldn’t hear? What did they hear if they couldn’t hear?  Was being deaf like when the wind blows everybody’s words away? Or did they not even hear the wind? Do deaf people’s ears ever ring when nothing is actually ringing like hers sometimes do? Does being deaf sound like the way you hear under water? Do your ears feel full of water when you are deaf?

Sometimes Daddy seems to know a lot and sometimes he doesn’t seem to know much of anything at all. She sorta-kinda got the idea, though.

Daddy went on, “When people can’t talk they are called dumb. It’s just a way to describe someone who can’t talk.”

Dumb isn’t a nice word, Daddy,” she reminded him again.

Besides, she understood everything her best friend said.  Her best friend didn’t say things the way everybody else said things, so you couldn’t listen with just your ears.

She misses her best friend. When her family moved back to Memphis, her best friend stayed in Texas.

She remembers Texas and the night they met.  She was outside her new house with Momma and Daddy. The sun was about to go to bed for the night when the neighbors came out of the house right beside theirs.  And there was her best friend.  They both squealed and immediately the chase was on.  Running, running, running. Cool grass on bare feet. Lungs aching with the effort of breathing around giggles, squeals, and exhaustion. The sheer joy of having a friend. Of being seen!

That night as she scratched at her berjillion mosquito bites, her parents murmured in sad, serious tones things she didn’t comprehend.

“… woman in a child’s body”

“Can’t imagine…”

“…must be hard.”

“What a shame.”

She didn’t understand her best friend was “different” until one day during another endless game of Chase, she tripped over a broom in the driveway. Face slides across bumpy concrete. Pebbles scrape tender skin on palms and knees.  Best friend sees her fall and panics, collapsing to the ground beside her. Hands flapping. Moaning. Best friend didn’t fall, why is she crying? Oh, oh, face on fire. It hurts. Best friends crying together. Blood-curdling screams.  The scene strikes fear in the heart of both Mommas, who rush out to fix their injured children.

Mercurochrome is dabbed on her scrapes – even on her nose.  “Hey Rudolph, what happened to you?” Daddy will say when he gets home from work.

Momma decides it’s better for her not to play with her best friend, who is so much older. She might hurt her, accidentally.

Bruises and scrapes will heal in a few days.  Other kinds of hurts take much longer.

When I was but a wee lass, my mother would deposit me at my grandparents’ house at the onset of summer vacation to “spend the night” and there I would stay all summer. I’m pretty sure I didn’t have a change of clothes or even a toothbrush, but my grandparents, resourceful people that they were, managed to provided whatever was needed. Year after year this was the routine.

My grandparents’ storage shed, where they kept the dryer and a deep freezer full of hamburger patties and freezer-dried buns, had the most intriguing scent.  I’m convinced it was the lingering fragrance of the 1950s, though probably it was just a bouquet of old insulation, dryer sheets, and mildewed wood.  Whatever it was I have never smelled anything else like it anywhere. Somehow the scent persisted through the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

Inevitably, other family children wound up at the grandparents’ house to stay the night (for real just the night) while I was there. My grandmother would occasionally ask one of them to go to the shed to get the laundry out of the dryer.  I was rarely asked to perform this chore, probably because I was the youngest and least reliable. Plus, going to the shed by myself scared the heck out of me. In fact, I might have left an accidental trail of her panties from shed to house once when on this mission by myself…out of fear, mind you, not out of spite.  It’s hard to run away from imagined monsters while burdened with a load of heavy laundry.

Despite this fear, I didn’t mind accompanying the appointed laundry retrievers to the shed because I loved smelling the room and because all the other family kids were bigger than me, better at fighting off offending monsters, and thus terribly interesting.  I didn’t want to leave any of them alone for even a minute for fear of missing something fantastic that they might do.

So there we would stand with “not enough room in this shed for both of us” (whatever) while he or she dealt with hot laundry and I huffed the scent of the 1950s.

I really miss that scent.

Any scents from childhood that you miss?

Out of the mist your voice is calling, it’s twilight time.

When purple colored curtains mark the end of day,

I’ll hear you, my dear, at twilight time.

–The Platters, Twilight Time

~~*~~

Catherine Soule, or Kiki, graced this world from August 1, 1914 to June 14, 2004.

She sometimes drove with her elbows propped on the steering wheel, her chin resting on her hands.

She smelled like roses.

She loved hamburgers.

Her living room was a sacred place to welcome guests. Everything in it was just so and it was off limits to grandkids. When she got new carpet, we had to take off our shoes and leave our socks on to walk on it.

She grew mint just outside the backdoor.

Before I knew her, she wore little dainty white gloves. I never saw her wear them, but she had a lot of them.

She would visit the beauty shop to get her hair done every week.   Immediately following each visit she’d spend a very long time in the bathroom restyling it.

She kept all the greeting cards she ever received in a box under her bed.

She used Scotch Tape at night between her eyebrows to keep frown lines at bay.

She swore that ½ a banana would cure everything from headaches to nausea.

She would prop the end of her ironing board on her bed and lie on it upside down to undo the effects of gravity.

She referred to earrings as earbobs.

She watched Johnny Carson every night.

She once told me to “give the finger” to a person who cut her off in traffic.  When I looked over at her horrified she gave me a little wave with her index finger to demonstrate what she meant by the phrase.

One of her favorite songs to play on her organ was Twilight Time. She also would play Love Me Tender.

When I spent the night she’d always tell me I looked like “the last rose of summer” in the morning when I woke.

She taught me to end each day by counting my blessings and praying for loved ones.

She was married to Hiram Soule for 72 years.

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