I usually write the first draft of this column each week in four or five different sittings. Ten or fifteen minutes is often the longest I can sit and fully concentrate. Likewise, the books and articles I read to find research material for the column, I’m only able to read for ten or fifteen minutes at a sitting as well. After that, I unconsciously interrupt my regular breathing pattern and begin to get antsy and anxious. Clearly, my brain has changed over the 25 years I’ve been working with computers, but it doesn’t feel like it’s changed for the better. It is a change wrought by the Internet that many of our children however, will never know – the strength and joy of having much greater powers of concentration.
Harvard Business Review editor, Nicholas Carr had to move from Boston to a cabin in the Colorado mountains and turn down his own consumer electronics consumption in order to write his recent bestseller, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. In that book, Carr argues there is a downside to Internet Culture – we are at risk of raising a generation of fast-twitch airheads, sentenced to live their lives in the “intellectual shallows.” It’s a generation that regularly fails to realize that greater access to knowledge is not the same as greater knowledge, that breadth of knowledge is not the same as depth of knowledge, that multi-tasking is not the same as engaging complexity, and finally, that ever-increasing mountains of facts and data are not the same as wisdom. Princeton philosopher, Cornel West has intimated that this description unfortunately fits our current president, making too many critical choices solely from his intellect.
Another unexpected outcome of the electronic revolution was recently detailed by Nurtureshock authors, Po Bronson and Ashley Merriman in Newsweek: America is a country in the middle of a creativity decline bordering on a crisis. To come up with that determination researcher Kyung Hee Kim at William and Mary College analyzed 300,000 Torrance scores, which are generally accepted as an accurate measure of Creativity Quotient (CQ). What Hee found is that American creativity has been in steady decline since 1990, just as computers and computer games began their great cultural infiltration. And the greatest decline has occurred in schoolchildren from kindergarten through sixth grade.
Wisdom is Embodied
It’s interesting that this decline in creativity also seems to run parallel with a reduction in physical education in our public schools. According to the Surgeon General’s Report, beginning in the early nineties, overall enrollment in daily physical education classes declined among high school students from 42 percent to 27 percent by the end of the decade. (Astonishingly, the baseline starts out at less than half of all kids – 42%!).
This is but one aspect of a very complex process, but here’s how I think physical education and wisdom might be related. The brain’s neural network processes energy and information. Generally, the more neurons we possess making more connections, much like a computer network, the more energy and information we can process. The more energy and information we can process, the wiser we have the potential for being, perhaps particularly if we can be aware of and make sense of the energy and information being regularly transmitted from the neurons in our “ancillary” brains – our hollow organs like our stomach and our heart – to our insula, where “gut” feelings get processed.
Inhibited and/or Enriched
Neuron growth and connectivity in our brain can alternately be inhibited or enriched. Internal and external environments have the capacity to do either. Internal environments that inhibit neuron growth and connectivity, particularly in critical limbic and prefrontal brain areas, respond poorly to excessive amounts of stress-generated neurotoxins like adrenaline and cortisol. Exercising the body thus serves an exocrine function – we literally sweat these neurotoxins out of our system (Interestingly, tears of grief also serve a similar exocrine function).
Sitting at a computer or in a classroom or in front of the television for most of the day does very little in the way of providing an exit strategy for neurotoxins. Just the opposite, as many classrooms, computer games and television shows probably generate more stress chemicals than they clear out. This recent study seems to suggest that simply so much sitting is the biggest part of what ails us.
What to Do?
Move yourself and get your kids moving. This might be a male thing, but I don’t like exercising for exercise’s sake. I like exercising with goals in mind. I like cutting and stacking firewood, for example, or riding my bike into town to get the mail, rather than just to ride. I like moving in order to build things or to discover things in my local environment.
Limit or circumscribe exposure to electronic media. This includes television (reduce those 200 billion hours spent watching every year), iPads, iPhones, Gameboys, wiis, Kindles, Xboxes and anything else that results in kids’ physical movement being significantly reduced for hours on end.
Spend time in nature, meditating. It’s pretty clear that most all forms of contemplative practice provide great neural benefit. Here’s a recent study on how meditation increases attention span. Forests, too, engender healing, as this study confirms. Nevertheless, it continues to astonish me how little the open space preserves in Northern California are actually used by people for camping, hiking, exploring meditation. To this day, I can hike into Big Basin Redwood Preserve from the Pacific Coast Highway, hike up to Golden Falls and Silver Falls and encounter only four or five other people on the whole day-long trek. We seem to have lost our memory for the healing, restorative power of nature, and our minds, bodies, brains and souls are paying the price.