Has thirteen years of WWW ruined my brain?
May 21, 2007 6:42 AM   Subscribe

I think thirteen years of surfing the internet has ruined my brain.

At home, at work, whenever I can, I'm bouncing from website to website, ingesting these quick hits of information and moving on to the next site at the slighted twinge of boredom. Doing this for 2-3 hours a day since 1994 has left me unable to concentrate on anything that's not absolutely scintillating to me -- I get impatient with conversation with my wife, I can't pay attention during meetings at work, and what's worst, it's very difficult to do my job, which is not interesting to me (but provides a high income that would be very difficult to replace by changing careers).

I know I am putting my family at risk because of what I'm doing to my ability to concentrate, because I've already been laid off once from a position I probably could have kept had I been able to focus, and perform to my abilities. That I earn over $100,000/year currently is more testament to my potential, and ability to perform "just well enough," than to any real acheivement.

Have I permanently destroyed my ability to focus and grind through less-than-fascinating tasks? How can I regain the tolerance for tedium I used to have, and which is so vital to me being able to succeed in my career?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (34 answers total) 98 users marked this as a favorite
I somehow doubt that the instant gratification of the internet has diminished your ability to concentrate. I would guess it is rather a convenient escape from a reality you are struggling with.
posted by caddis at 6:52 AM on May 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

Easiest way? Get rid of internet at home.
posted by footnote at 6:53 AM on May 21, 2007

I'm in the same boat, and I wonder the same thing. Given my career choice, I need to stay abreast of geeky things happening on the interweb, but I'm trying to take up hobbies that require me to slow down and focus without being mentally draining. I've chosen running and gardening. The physical benefits are part of my motivation also.

When my runs first started hitting 30 minutes and up, I thought I was going insane. I could not even look straight ahead. The mental exhaustion was much worse than the physical exhaustion. After awhile though, I started to tolerate it, and eventually enjoy it.

I write software, and I've had some amazing ideas on my runs. Focusing on something for over an hour without any distractions definitely has value.

I chose gardening because everything else in my life was about instant gratification. Surfing the web, checking email, and even working as a contractor all provided instant results. I wanted to find something that I really had to invest myself in. Everything else in my life, I could always shortcut with cleverness, but I can't shortcut growing a plant, and I feel that it's definitely been good for my psyche. Unfortunately, I haven't given it the time it deserves, but hopefully when I finish up my MS this summer, I can get on that.
posted by AaRdVarK at 6:57 AM on May 21, 2007 [8 favorites]

You've got NADD.
posted by brownpau at 6:58 AM on May 21, 2007

Second the getting rid of home access. Also try taking a longer (two week+) vacation somewhere without it to get used to not having it.
posted by procrastination at 6:58 AM on May 21, 2007

This might be sort-of like going to oktoberfest to get help with alcoholism. If your really think the internet is threatening your marriage and job it's time to go talk to a professional. And footnote's idea is good to.
posted by CaptMcalister at 7:00 AM on May 21, 2007

Unplug from the grid at home and pick up a hobby that allows you to seek out, digest and apply new information to something you can cultivate over time like a garden, or doing some landscaping, or painting, reading more books, anything but consuming pointless gibberish that means nothing to you whatsoever in the long run.
posted by prostyle at 7:01 AM on May 21, 2007

We had an article on MeFi not too long ago about a guy who just turned off his Internet for a month; he just stopped using it completely. It was hard for him at first, but he talked about how he was quickly developing more patience and analytical skill again. The MeFites were rather scornful (as I'd expect), but it sounded like it might speak to you pretty well.

After some digging, I found it: The Internetless Life. (This is the Mefi post, which leads to the article.) Might be worth a read.
posted by Malor at 7:09 AM on May 21, 2007 [2 favorites]

You just need exercise. If this was something physical, the answer would be obvious. For instance, I never played sports as a kid, and throughout my twenties and early 30s, I was mostly sedentary. I realized this wasn't healthy, but I never thought, "I guess my couch-potato life has made me incapable of physical action." On the other hand, I didn't suddenly jump up an run a marathon.

I bought an exercise bike, and -- I kid you not -- the first time I rode it, I rode it for one minute. Over the course of a week, I built up to five minutes. Fast-forward a few months: I was up to an hour a day.

So sure, you're going to feel incapable if you go from instant gratification to reading "War and Peace," but there's no need to make such a huge leap.

The mind is incredibly plastic and it responses really well to exercise. I don't want to suggest specific exercises for you, because they need to be personalized to you. But the general idea is this: if you find classical music boring, don't sit through The Ring Cycle. Listen to five minutes of a Beethoven symphony. Even if it's agony for you, it's just five minutes of agony. (Don't worry if your mind wanders. That's okay.) The next day, listen to that five minutes again. Do that for a week. Then, the next week, listen to seven minutes.

Replace Beethoven-symphony with walk-in-the-park or whatever makes sense to you.
posted by grumblebee at 7:09 AM on May 21, 2007 [8 favorites]

Oh man, a thread after my own heart. I know how you feel, and don't think you should worry what the DSM-IV says. You can change your habits. (And from the sound of it, maybe you wanna change your habits.)

grumblebee has it right. Reflective/long-form activities are so important, and physical exercise pays off in that regard: because you're working on a timescale quite different from the 30-second website clock, you start to trust yourself on those long-term projects.

Importantly: read more books! Get your mind accustomed to that rubato cognition. Watch fewer things onscreen. Go outside (a place that, according to news reports, contains natural light and no clocks - believe that shit when I see it) and very literally practice slowing down. Your mind really can and will enjoy the longeurs and caesuras and other extremely pretentious words that out-of-tempo living can provide. And that'll help you invest the quick-response bullshit with more meaning. None of this meditation bollocks, just train yourself to respond to off-the-clock stimuli.

And yeah: kill the Internet for a while. By which I don't mean disconnect it (it's cheap), just keep your computer off (instead of sleeping) most of the time, and only jump online when you need to. You'll find better ways to fill the time, no problem.

You have your hand on a real problem but it's by no means dire and you'll find a way around it. Think Dune, man: the value of slowness and stillness.
posted by waxbanks at 7:23 AM on May 21, 2007 [3 favorites]

I have this problem to some degree. I'm a grad student, and my work is very independent. I find that when I have access to the internet, the slightest stress or difficulty or boredom with what I'm doing has me checking for instant gratification, usually on the internet. Dealing with it takes a combination of will and honesty. For me, at least, overusing the internet and other forms of entertainment is escapism--it feeds into a cycle of lack of concentration but it isn't the cause. Lately, I've been dealing with it by setting small goals for the day and simply turning the internet off when I'm working at my computer. Without the instant access to email and RSS alerts, I find that it's much, much easier to concentrate.

You're ability to enjoy talking to your wife is probably hampered by many things. Think a little about some of the things that weigh on your mind and distract you when you are talking with her. If it's all internet, then take a week off entirely or schedule only one hour a day that you will peruse your favourite sites. But if there are other things like bills or housework, or general responsibilities of life that you two share that aren't getting done, then set aside some time to address those things. However, don't just do a bunch of chores: suggest a time when your family can all work on the things they need to do together, say two hours of bill-paying, house cleaning, and homework doing, and follow that up with something everybody really enjoys. A barbecue, a trip to the zoo, a movie, a meal at a favourite restaurant.

Basically what you want to do to renew your focus on your family is do things with them and for them: develop your relationships with them, recognizing that it takes some work and some boredom, but that the rewards are more satisfying than fragmented bits of instant gratification. As you invest more of your energy in working with your family and rewarding you and them with entertaining activities after boring/difficult ones, you will find that it is easier to focus on them because they become the source of more than responsibility and (possibly) dread or entrapment, they become the source of fun, entertainment, and enjoyment. But you have to recognize that it will take a little leap of faith and some drudgery to get to that point.

If you can do this with your family, it may provide the impetus you need for work: work can become one of those things that you do for the purpose of freeing up time and resources to do the things you enjoy. The other positive thing is that if you develop this type of investment in your family, then if you really, really hate your job, you will be in a position to talk about it with your wife in such a way that suggesting a drop in income doesn't feel like just yet another way in which you are not there for them.

Finally, from my perspective as an anthropologist, I would say that you have likely not ruined your brain, but that you have practices a particular way of interacting with the world and the people around you that has made your lack of attention seem natural. There is a ton of evidence that how we act and how we feel are intrinsically connected. When you act a particular way for a long time, it changes how you feel about things and about yourself, and even how you perceive yourself and the world. The good news here is that this isn't "damage" and it isn't irreversible. Figure out how you would act if your felt the way you want to feel, and then start acting that way. The feelings will follow.
posted by carmen at 7:41 AM on May 21, 2007 [11 favorites]

It sounds like you have two linked problems -- work surfing destroys your job task concentration (and making it more likely you'll lose your job) and home surfing damages your basic social skills (which I presume might endanger your marriage in the long run, or at least alienates your wife).

Getting rid of your home web access (and adopting the usual regimen of exercise/meditate/eat healthy advice that comes up in nearly all AskMe self-help threads) is a good idea and might help your home situation, but I worry it might actually exacerbate your need for web distraction at work -- the twitchy-surfy gratification lust might just be shifted to when you have access to the web.

So: do you need the web to do your job? If not, maybe disable web browsers and RSS feeds, etc., in your work computer. At the very least maybe get rid of desk-top browser icons or other quick shortcuts to sites and web resources/distractions that lure you. Delete your recreational site bookmarks at work. Make it a chore to get to web distractions and with any luck you'll be less tempted to warp out of what you "should" be doing.

Long term (and therefore maybe unsolicited advice) -- maybe do some career counseling to figure out whether there is another career path you could take that you might actually care about (and therefore be less tempted to want to continually escape from)?
posted by aught at 7:43 AM on May 21, 2007

I've had similar concerns. If you're really committing to modifying your behavior, check out the Webolodeon script for Greasemonkey. It pops up a box every five minutes or so and you have to put in another "nickel" in the form of inputting your reason for continuing to surf. It does wonders for your awareness of your surfing behavior and makes you accountable for wasting time.

This worked for me b/c I have too many legitmate reasons to be on the internet -- shutting it off was not a viable option. Webolodeon helped me retrain my brain.
posted by purplegenie at 7:44 AM on May 21, 2007 [14 favorites]

Aarvarkss point "Focusing on something for over an hour without any distractions definitely has value." reminded me of my accidental discovery of the same thing - I got a new job, but it was a one hour commute each way. Taking the bus instead of driving was so much more convenient there was no contest, and on top of that, instead of me commuting to work (a not-fun activity requiring mental engagement), I instead had two hours of forced leisure time a day, where I could do anything, so long as it was on the bus and didn't disrupt others.
As aarkvark says, eventually the time becomes very useful, (until you almost don't know how you operated without it). I had a laptop and would sometimes load my daily favourite website before leaving to read on the way, but even the web that way is different.

I later took another job with a much shorter commute, and the "loss" of that time felt like I was living life at a million miles an hour and doing things half-cocked as a result.
So yeah, seconding his point.
posted by -harlequin- at 7:51 AM on May 21, 2007

I don't know of any scientific evidence anywhere that supports the notion that the "instant gratification" of accessing information on the web "destroys" the ability to focus. If anything, the higher cognitive burden of synthesizing all that information demonstrates an increase of focus.

I thought the Internet was making me stupid too, until I quit my job and went back to school. Being able to concentrate all day on tasks I find interesting has greatly enhanced my productivity (not to mention my personal relationships)— without curtailing Internet use.

In short, I'm with caddis on this one. The problems you mention seem more like symptoms of depression than symptoms of the EVIL INTERWEBS.
posted by aparrish at 8:12 AM on May 21, 2007

this isn't really a problem, there must be tens of millions of americans who surf for hours. your brain isn't ruined, just changed a little. think of yourself as humanity 2.0. you're still earning over 100 grand and functioning just fine, your brain should continue to serve you adequately for the years you have left.
posted by bruce at 8:25 AM on May 21, 2007

I agree with the recommendation to pull the cable/dsl plug at home.

You could start small: eg have a No Internet Day every week. Just keep that computer turned off on Saturday or Sunday, get out of the house, do something else. Reducing your internet surfing by 1/7th is significant.

Work your way up to No Internet On Weekends.

Then, if you don't want to pull the plug on high-speed at home, go dial-up instead. It's not about the money, it's about saving your mind - surf slower during week nights.

I am moving soon, and seriously thinking of not renewing my highspeed connection. This scares me a little (what will Flickr feel like, in slo-mo?) but oh the opportunities to put my mind to other things !!
posted by seawallrunner at 8:39 AM on May 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

I have this problem. I am a photographer and I find that I escape to the internet to resolve boredom whenever I get stuck for ideas. My solution is to grow plants also. Grow something from seed that will yield fruit at the end (for me this is important because it makes gardening purposeful, instead of just growing something for decoration). The slower timescale of gardening forces me to slow down and the daily maintenance of looking after my plants gives me 5-10 minutes to myself to reflect on what I should be doing that day, instead of checking my email for the 100th time and accomplishing nothing.
posted by bradbane at 9:00 AM on May 21, 2007

Dude, it has nothing to do with the internets. Do grasp this.

You could do lots of things to teach yourself to relax and concentrate, or you could just control your head.
posted by ewkpates at 9:47 AM on May 21, 2007

A few people have suggested physical exercise, and I agree that this is a really good idea. I don't think it's so much your ability to pay attention that is screwed up as your judgement of effort versus rewards - right now the rewards in front of you don't seem worth the effort it takes to get them. Pushing yourself through physical discomfort every day will help to recalibrate that relationship.
posted by teleskiving at 10:04 AM on May 21, 2007

I've felt the same thing in myself to some degree - particularly since I began using tabbed browsing in Firefox and RSS readers like Bloglines. I'm suddenly more aware of a vast long list of things to check on each day, and giving them less time. I've been thinking about taking up yoga and/or meditation to help me pull back and regain some broader focus time.
posted by dnash at 10:24 AM on May 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

Start reading. I recently realized that I had killed my childhood love of reading with the internet. Buy or borrow a stack of novels...good ones, but start out with best seller pager turners, stick 'em by your easy chair, spend some time every day reading with a pot of tea. Try to get through large chunks before you put it down. Write down favorite quotes and whatnot. Go out for a walk and reward yourself at the end by reading in a park.
posted by stray at 10:30 AM on May 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

Here's William James on attention, about 100 ago:

"One often hears it said that genius is nothing but a power of sustained attention, and the popular impression probably prevails that men of genius are remarkable for their voluntary powers in this direction. But a little introspective observation will show any one that voluntary attention cannot be continuously sustained,—that it comes in beats. When we are studying an uninteresting subject, if our mind tends to wander, we have to bring back our attention every now and then by using distinct pulses of effort, which revivify the topic for a moment, the mind then running on for a certain number of seconds or minutes with spontaneous interest, until again some intercurrent idea captures it and takes it off. Then the processes of volitional recall must be repeated once more. Voluntary attention, in short, is only a momentary affair. "

I don't think you've ruined your brain, but you have gotten out of practice resisting the temptation to just let your mind flit to whatever catches your attention for a second. The internet makes that really easy to do for all of us, as does multi-tasking in general. Getting away from your computer for a while will help, but eventually you'll need to practice re-focusing your mind even when the temptation is there. One thing that I do when some overpowering curiosity hits me in the middle of some other task ("What's Kenny Loggins up to these days?") is just to make a quick note of the question somewhere, and then immediately get back to what I should be doing. Then in an hour or two I can spend a few minutes looking into any of the questions that I still actually give a damn about...
posted by svenx at 10:30 AM on May 21, 2007 [5 favorites]

you've been farked
posted by Mach5 at 11:02 AM on May 21, 2007

Hey, what IS Kenny Loggins up to these days?

Seriously, I live and breathe your problem. Layer on it that I work from home, and my work load is pretty lightweight these days, and I end up leveling my hunter to 70 in Outland rather than running a report that's not necessarily due right away.
posted by thanotopsis at 12:19 PM on May 21, 2007

Productivity in my cube has skyrocketed since work blocked bloglines. After the initial wailing , gnashing of teeth and tearful sending of mails to have it unblocked I was forced to start working again in order to stave off the boredom.
posted by zemblamatic at 1:36 PM on May 21, 2007

it's very difficult to do my job, which is not interesting to me (but provides a high income that would be very difficult to replace by changing careers).

Try growing a backbone,

Seriously, the biggest 'flaw' I see in the current generation is the holding of the almighty dollar above everything else. And why endless numbers of them are going into careers of making money by making money, rather than actually being productive in society.
posted by HTuttle at 3:57 PM on May 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

Neuroplasticity (the ability for your brain to change over time) is alive and well. How you choose to embrace it is up to you. Some would say you are depressed and using the net as a crutch, others that you need to muscle through it, and still others would tell you not to mind one way or the other and ignore it.

Why don't you write a book (the paper kind, and I mean write as in with a pen and paper) about exploring these takes on the issue? It'd be a good goal to shoot for, and trying to generate the content should help your organizing and depth building skills.
posted by jwells at 5:56 PM on May 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

It's just a habit, like TV for some people - Nthin those who say pull the plug.

(BTW, I am torn between "Why the hell was this greenlit?" and "Metafilter is STILL around? I thought that went the way of Al Franken's radio network" as my favorite fark comments.)
posted by selfmedicating at 7:08 PM on May 21, 2007

Related thread.
posted by homunculus at 11:59 PM on May 21, 2007

I too have been considering things along this line. For me, the problem seems to be that the internet short-curcuits my usual strategies for dealing with myself.

Am I depressed? Quite likely. Why is this a problem now? Because, I experience depression as 'boredom'. The internet cures boredom, or at least, makes it interesting (oxymoronic, I know). But it is different from my more normal tactics. So, where I would usually do something that busts myself out of the rut, the internet keeps me feeling content within the damn rut.

I have noted in the past that depression, for me, prompts its own cure. I get bored silly, and that motivates me to rearrange my life/habits/interests. I no longer get this motivation much. The internet is part of the reason, for certain. I'm considering what will be the most effective strategy for transcending the matter.
posted by Goofyy at 1:08 AM on May 22, 2007 [3 favorites]

I have the same sort of problem but it is either masked or exacerbated by my diabetes and blood sugar issues. Exercise helped for me a little bit, but not reliably. After getting up to two hours of exercise 4 times a week I definitely had more energy, and a tiny bit more focus.

Whatever you do, I would strongly consider paring back your expenses and increasing your savings and investment. If it turns out you need to switch careers for voluntary or involuntary reasons, you are going to want that nest egg and budget.

Please, please, please let us know how this turns out for you. Seventy two plus people favorited this thread for a reason.
posted by BrotherCaine at 10:56 PM on May 22, 2007

i have to have home internet access for work, but i have considered putting my cable modem onto one of those timers you use to turn your lamps on and off when you're out of town, so it doesn't intrude on my leisure time. unfortunately the stupid thing also controls my phone, and has an 8-hour battery. :)

but assuming you don't have that problem, you might try setting at 2-hour limit and see how well that works.

there might be some parental-control software that you can set to limit your access as well.
posted by thinkingwoman at 10:40 AM on May 23, 2007

A number of thoughts came up reading your post:

The addictive nature of moving, like in a car. The web gives a feeling that there is something new, something exciting around the next web corner, down the next cyber road and so one keeps 'moving forward', going, going, going. This can key into the agitated thinking of generalised anxiety and trigger a kind of situational attention deficit disorder.

Object constancy, using the internet because one is lonely and one's social/emotional need for strokes or connections with others are not being met by the people in one's immediate offline life.

Compulsive distraction from feared events in one's life.

The book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television prompted me to think about the addictive nature of the visual on the small screen of a TV. Wonder if his assertions also apply to a computer monitor's impact on the brain, it would seem likely, if what he said about TV is true.
posted by nickyskye at 12:45 PM on May 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

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