Hey interwebs! Can I have my brain back?
June 3, 2010 4:51 PM   Subscribe

I'm pretty sure that too much internet has fried my brain. If I cut back my time online, is it likely that my powers of concentration will return? And how should I structure an "internet diet" for maximum effect?

For various reasons, I've been spending an increasing amount of time online (just regular day-to-day stuff: forums, Wikipedia, shopping, weather, news, but quite a bit of it) over the past 5 years or so, and I'm pretty sure it's had a deleterious effect on my attention span, willpower and ability to concentrate. I'm ADHD to begin with, so I'm sure that hasn't helped, but I used to be able to hyperfocus on books, math problems, etc., in a way that's just not possible now. Right now, I feel like I can barely follow a conversation, and it sucks.

I'd like to try seeing if less internet would help me get my mind back, and I was wondering, first: does anyone have any experience with any aspect of this that'd suggest the process is reversible-- that the brain can return to its previous baseline even following cognitive changes due to overstimulation? (Inspiring success stories would be great, if there are any out there!)

And second, any ideas on how I can approach the problem of how to structure this internet fast? Should I be aiming for total abstinence, or a one-week cleanse followed by gradual reintroduction, or just avoiding the linkiest sites, alternating days online and off, or what? Obviously, I'd like to continue using as much internet as is consistent with keeping my focus intact; but how can I estimate just how much that is?
posted by gallusgallus to Computers & Internet (19 answers total) 87 users marked this as a favorite
Instead of sticking to a schedule of how much internet you get....why not do it the other way around. Think of what it is you would like to do when you get your mind back from the internet...then go do that thing at whatever kind of pacing you would like to commit to, and then if in your time outside of that you feel like being on the internet, do so with abandon.
posted by ian1977 at 5:13 PM on June 3, 2010

a number of relevant links, that you should not read because you're giving up the internet: I'd recommend spending time reading physical books (preferably novels) to build up that feeling of focus and immersion. If meditation is your kind of thing, that would help too.

I can't find the particular article, but one writer made the point that the brain is incredibly malleable, and it molds itself according to the things we use it for. If you've spent years online turning your brain into ADD pudding, you can expect it to take years to build back all of the concentration and attention span you've lost. However, there's no reason to expect that your brain won't mold back, eventually, given the right tasks to work on.
posted by Chris4d at 5:19 PM on June 3, 2010

This article has some good tips, including taking 90 minutes first thing in the morning to concentrate on your most important task.
posted by bananafish at 5:24 PM on June 3, 2010

Similar questions have been around for a long time. A ten-year-old survey conducted by the Stanford Institute of Quantitative Study of Society concluded that "Internet time is coming out of time viewing television but also at the expense of time people spend on the phone gabbing with family and friends, or having a conversation with people in the room with them."

Ask yourself what affect your Net usage is having on activities you used to enjoy. Television really does suck these days, but then that's really nothing new. I have had longer conversations via email with people I've never met than I have with folks I've known for 25 years. You know, maybe there's something to that sociology study after all. The Internet certainly has changed my life. Who knows if that's good or bad. I used to spend an hour every day reading my local newspaper, and close to another hour watching television news. Now I get a daily digest of the topics that interest me in a matter of minutes through my personally configured Web news.

Did you know that "If the head of a cockroach is removed carefully, so as to prevent it from bleeding to death, the cockroach can survive for several weeks? When it dies, it is from starvation." I didn't, until I found it on the Internet.

I will always remember this from the Cluetrain Manifesto: "To understand what's really happening on the Internet, you have to get down beneath the commercial hype and hoopla, which — though it gets 90 percent of the press — is actually a late arrival. From the beginning, something very different has been brewing online."

"It has to do with living, with livelihood, with craft, connection, and community. This isn't some form of smarmy New Age mysticism, either. It's tough and gritty and it's just beginning to find its voice, its own direction. But it's also difficult to describe; as the song says, "It's like trying to tell a stranger about rock and roll." And it's next to impossible to understand unless you've experienced it for yourself. You have to live in the Net for a while."

When my Internet odyssey began in 1994, I immediately sensed this was not another office Christmas party. People were engaged. They were talking with each other about anything, and everything; and they were unshackled. Free from the bondage of tradition. Except for the old-world corporate culture trying to reinvent television, they still are. The Internet isn't about power and control. It's about life. Ours.

Ebullient, spiritual, emancipated, cold, hard, plugged-in life. As one of the author's of the aforementioned book, David Weinberger, says, "We're having a party and the news reports are missing it entirely — like covering the Mardi Gras by reporting on the gross profits of local liquor stores." Millions of forums, billions of World Wide Web sites, billions of human beings being humans.

What is it that makes the Internet so compelling to so many? Aside from the obvious fun and entertainment, educational and business opportunities, and show-offism; I think it boils down to a slogan taken from the eighties. No fear! The playing field is level. Size doesn't matter, really. Inhibitions and reservations are out the window.

Internet life is people with diseases and addictions, exposing souls and sharing their recoveries. It's about overviews of history warning future generations not to repeat the mistakes of their predecessors. Sure there are a few kooks to throw us off guard, but mostly the Net is just us being ourselves without fear of reprisal. How refreshing.

The Internet is people talking and sharing ideas. Our best and brightest, wallflowers and flower children, the girl next door and the Doc who delivered your kids. It's about you and me. We are all using our own cognizant voices, and we're listening too. We're challenging the status quo, and we're offering alternatives. Collaboration on a global scale all tied together by that simplest of cyber friendships, the hyperlink. Communication has never seen anything like it.

I first considered all this ten years ago when that sociology study came out. Another ten years later, my life is even more enriched by the Internet.

So to answer your question, I don't think it's the Internet that has whacked your brain, I think you might want to be looking elsewhere. If anything, the Internet is keeping you stimulated.
posted by netbros at 5:53 PM on June 3, 2010 [18 favorites]

taking 90 minutes

I get to work early (I’m a teacher) and I spend about an hour every morning before school focusing one task or thing. I find it very beneficial, but I can’t quite pinpoint why.

For example, this morning I spent an hour completely cleaning and organizing my classroom. When I was finished, I started the day with a clear mind and in a good mood. I am on the Internet off-and-on all day, but starting off with an hour or so of Internet-free productivity is excellent.
posted by vkxmai at 6:47 PM on June 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm in your shoes, and have had no success with the thing I'm about to suggest, but want to try it myself.

At this moment, I have my laptop open in front of my desktop. Both are focused on Firefox. The desktop has 31 tabs open. The laptop has 48+14 tabs open (two windows). After I finish this comment, I am going to "deal with"/close all the tabs, and arbitrarily limit myself to 3 tabs on each computer.

Tabs are not conducive to follow-through. Even as I'm in the process of writing this, I switch over and browse LJ (even though there's nothing new), I check on facebook, I skim six or seven open tabs without actually *doing* anything. Not bookmarking/tagging, not absorbing the content, just... looking at it. If I added up all the time I spent just... looking... at stuff on the internet, hopping from one thing to another with no clear goal, it might add up to hours a day. And staying on the surface level like that, it gives my brain a lot of chances to fret over stupid little things, which would vanish from my mental periphery if I applied myself to any focus at all.

So I'm going to make a giant effort to do fewer things on the internet at one time. With only three tabs, I think I'll either reach a stalemate faster (and go do something like read/write/etc), or I'll internet in productive, focused ways.
posted by itesser at 7:46 PM on June 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I wonder... is there an app that would limit use of your favorite browser at certain times? That would be helpful because you'd effectively block yourself from using the internet during certain blocks of time.

If anybody knows how to do this on OS X, please post!
posted by 2oh1 at 7:49 PM on June 3, 2010

2oh1: Leechblock for Firefox!
posted by soviet sleepover at 7:51 PM on June 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

...but I use Safari :(
posted by 2oh1 at 8:00 PM on June 3, 2010

I think there must be a way to block oneself from using certain programs during certain times of the day. Surely there are gamers who want to prevent their gaming cravings. I'd love to block Safari from launching during certain times when I need more focus.
posted by 2oh1 at 8:58 PM on June 3, 2010

The guy who wrote the Atlantic article linked above expanded it into a book, and was featured in an NPR interview recently. It's probably worth the read, although some of the user comments say the premise is too one-sided (which I'm initially skeptical of... the positives of technology don't just nullify the negatives).

Funnily enough, NPR read a listener letter today pointing out the irony that the original interview ended by saying that an excerpt of the book was available on NPR's web site.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 1:15 AM on June 4, 2010

More relevant reading.
posted by jbickers at 4:26 AM on June 4, 2010

2oh1: SelfControl is a freeware Mac app that does pretty much that.
posted by coraline at 5:52 AM on June 4, 2010

(Sorry, forgot to add - it can be set for specific websites, not the whole browser. But still better than nothing.)
posted by coraline at 5:53 AM on June 4, 2010

I have started with a very simple restriction: When I start to read a webpage, I must read it all the way through, or close it. I've gotten in the terrible habit of hopping from page to page. Read a paragraph -- must go check e-mail -- wait, was that a chat notification? -- oooh, I thought of something funny to post on facebook -- what was I reading again?

Making myself do this oh, 80% of the time (sometimes there's a legitimate interruption, and I don't hold myself to it while "recreationally surfing" in the evening) has already had a positive impact on my focus.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:34 AM on June 4, 2010

I'll be the guy that pops in and suggests Freedom for those who want to forcefully cut their internet connection for a set time. Available for Mac or Windows.
posted by achompas at 8:07 AM on June 4, 2010

Here's a sloppy but effective way to give yourself a timeout from using Safari (or anything else) so you can focus on other things (in my case, creative writing at night).

Launch 'Automator' in the OS X applications folder.
* Choose 'Create Application'
* In the left hand 'Library' column, choose 'Utilities'
* In the middle column, double-click 'Quit Application' or drag it into the right column.
* Choose the application you want to NOT be able to use for a while (in this case, Safari)
* In the middle column, double-click 'loop' or drag it into the right hand column.
* Choose 'Loop Automatically' in the first menu.
* Set 'Stop After' to however long you want to NOT use Safari. Let's say 120 minutes.
* In the main menu at the top of the screen, under 'File' select 'Save As' and name the app you just created. Let's call it 'Safari TIMEOUT'

Now, when you launch Safari TIMEOUT, Safari will quit. If you try to relaunch Safari, it'll just immediately quit. This will keep happening until 120 minutes have passed unless you quit the Safari TIMEOUT app.

Now... let's say you really want to put yourself on a schedule. No Safari (or whatever else) for two hours each Monday from 8 to 10 PM. Launch 'iCal'. Double click on Monday to create an event. Name it. Set the time to 8 PM. Choose repeat 'Every week'. Under 'Alarm' choose 'Open File'. Select the Safari TIMEOUT app you created. Presto! Safari quits at 8 PM on Monday.

Want to give yourself a reminder that it's almost time to quit browsing the net? Add a second alarm. Choose 'message' or 'message with sound' and set it to something like '15 minutes before'.

Each Monday, at 7:45 PM, you'll get a reminder that it's almost time to quit browsing the internet. Then, at 8 PM, Safari will quit, and it won't be able to launch until 2 hours have passed, or until you quit the Safari TIMEOUT app that's running. After 2 hours, the Safari TIMEOUT app will automatically quit, at which point, you're free to browse the net again.

NOTE! This will also work for any computer time-suck program. Quit Safari... quit Firefox... quit whatever game you shouldn't be playing... quit iPhoto... Need peace and quiet? Quit iTunes!

"Hey interwebs! Can I have my brain back?"
Yes, you can. Give yourself a TIMEOUT :)
Hopefully, this will be helpful to someone.
posted by 2oh1 at 12:24 PM on June 4, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm in the midst of trying something like this myself with my own ADHD brain. I've never had any luck with negative reinforcement techniques when it comes to shaping my behaviour, so I am trying to come up with positive ones. basically, I'm trying to lure myself away from the computer: I have a desk with my computer on it, another desk with no computer on it, and a comfortable armchair. when I want to do computer things, I sit at the computer desk. and when I don't, I either sit at the other desk or in the armchair.

this works for me because I tend to do whatever presents itself to be done. so I sit down in the armchair and -- oh! -- there's the novel I'm in the middle of. read for a bit? why, don't mind if I do... and so on.

the only restriction I've needed is to turn off anything on my computer that will call attention to it when I do not want to be paying attention to it. I keep my email closed when I am not doing email, for example, so I no longer hear the happy 'you have mail' sound. and so far, it's working fairly well.
posted by spindle at 1:12 PM on June 4, 2010

I'm not affected by ADHD and have never been a hard-core computer junkie, but even I saw appreciable benefits from media detox. I spent last year on a farm with only intermittent access to the internet, TV or other multimedia distractions (typically thirty or so minutes weekly.) In that time my attention span, concentration and general IQ improved exponentially. Three months in, I found that I could pick up stereo instructions and read them cover to cover without losing interest, spend quiet hours by myself either walking, drawing or even just thinking...it felt great. I'm afraid that I don't have much to offer in they way of advice for getting yourself offline, but I would encourage you make it happen in any way possible!
posted by Lisitasan at 1:13 PM on June 4, 2010

« Older Kitchen Laptop?   |   How do I make a printer driver? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.