Monday, July 9, 2012

Existing in a distracted reality

As a clinical neuropsychologist, I see patients presenting with a variety of cognitive complaints.  With increasing frequency, adults arrive in my clinic asking to be evaluated for adult attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.  Adult ADHD is a slippery diagnosis, to be sure, yet the nature of these patients seems to have morphed in the past few years.  What once were patients with a clear developmental history of behavioral and learning problems and persistent difficulties with focus, executive functioning, and mood regulation now are more commonly mothers and fathers in their early 30s who maintain steady employment, but worry about their jobs, yet have no convincing developmental history.  They describe distractibility, forgetfulness, and mental cloudiness.  At home, they feel frazzled, flitting from one task to another, feeling unaccomplished in all of them.  Like many of us, their homes are filled with electronic distractions—Facebook, YouTube, e-mail, text messaging, Internet chat, and television to name a few.  

Two recent books have touched directly touched upon the trend that I am seeing clinically—increased access to and utilization of technology contributing to a distracted reality.  In The Shallows (2010), Nicholas Carr raises the question about what the Internet is doing to our brains.   He rather convincingly documents the effect of various technologies upon human behavior and cognition.  Among these are the clock, the map, the written word, and the printing press--each producing a subsequent change in how people process information and respond to their environment.  Naturally, his exploration of ancient technologies progresses to a thorough discussion of modern “conveniences” such as the Internet.  Carr traces patterns of writing, noting a general degradation of the written word as a means of communication.  Even traditional publishing methods have gone the way of the Internet with books now providing snippets of disconnected information rather than well-constructed, but perhaps cognitively challenging, prose.  It seems people are no longer interested or willing to engage with works such as War and Peace (or dare I say The Foundations of Soul Care), yet Carr goes further, suggesting that we may be losing the capacity to read deeply because of the increasing reliance upon the Internet and its disconnected presentation of information.  Carr writes,
“One thing is clear: if, knowing what we know today about the brain’s plasticity, you were to set out to invent a medium that would rewire mental circuits as quickly and thoroughly as possible, you would probably end up designing something that looks and works a lot like the Internet.  It’s not just that we tend to use the Net regularly, even obsessively. It’s that the Net delivers precisely the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli—repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive—that have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions.” (p. 116).  

He then goes on to describe several studies, from well-known researchers that document how actual cognitive and cerebral changes are taking place. 

The Shallows (which was ranked one of Tim Challies top books of 2010) seems to have had a significant influence upon Challies’s book, The Next Story (2011).  Challies, a prolific Christian blogger, has written with some regularity about the influence of technology in the church body.  The Next Story is his attempt to impart Biblical wisdom to issues surrounding the spread of technology.  Like Carr, Challies has a dual awareness of technology’s influence, both as a writer and as a user of modern media.  He presents a theological and practical analysis of how to make wise use of modern media, like Carr pointing to several benefits and potential drawbacks.  As a Christian, he also appropriately addresses the issue of making an idol of technology.  Neither author flatly rejects the use of computers or the Internet, nor do they encourage blind acceptance. 

Proverbs 17:14 reads, “the discerning sets his face toward wisdom, but the eyes of the fool are on the ends of the earth.”  The Internet, in many ways may provide us with an opportunity to look to the “ends of the earth.”  As we consider new technologies, we need to cautiously consider any wholesale acceptance of those new technologies, knowing that they may have untoward consequences such as diminished focus, increased forgetfulness, and a loss of wisdom.  On the other hand, we should avoid the Luddite tendency to villanize all technologies as inherently bad.  Rather, we need to search the Scriptures diligently to understand how God wants us to interact with our ever changing world. 

As counselors, we will increasingly encounter clients whose lives are deeply affected by the Internet.  We are already aware of a host of issues in the church—Internet pornography, adultery with old flames rekindled, depression, bullying, and distractibility.  Carr and Challies have provided a pair of important books addressing very real issues that we will see on an increasing basis as counselors.  I would commend them both to aid in understanding the effect of technology in our lives.

However, they will require focus.


Carr, N. (2010). The shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Challies, T. (2011). The next story: Life and faith after the digital explosion. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Jason Kanz, PhD, ABPP
Marshfield Clinic

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