January 7, 2009
On Being On, Always On
Statistics show that we are interrupted every three minutes during the course of the work day. Multitasking between email, cell-phone, text messages, and review Internet search results forces the brain to process more and more information at greater and greater speeds. Are all these high-tech advances overtaxing our Stone Age brains or is the constant flood of information giving our brains the daily exercise they seem to crave?
In The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory (Oxford UP, 2008), cognitive scientist Torkel Klingberg takes us on a journey into the limits and possibilities of the brain. He suggests that we should acknowledge and embrace our desire for information and mental challenges, but try to find a balance between demand and capacity. Klingberg explores the cognitive demands, or "complexity," of everyday life and how the brain tries to meet them. He focuses chiefly on "working memory," our capacity to keep information in mind for short periods of time. Dr Klingberg asserts that working memory capacity, long thought to be static and hardwired in the brain, can be improved by training, and that the increasing demands on working memory may actually have a constructive effect: as demands on the human brain increase, so does its capacity.
The key might be finding that balance between demand and capacity. One way, of course, is to limit interruptions. However, Naomi S. Baron finds the increase in screening interruptions by filtering contacts the most significant but troubling trend in people's use of electronic communications. In her award-winning book, Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World (Oxford, 2008), she argues that our ability to decide who to talk to is likely to be among the most lasting influences that information technology has upon the ways we communicate with one another. Moreover, as more people are "always on" one technology or another, Baron is concerned about what kind of people we become, as individuals and as family members or friends, if the relationships we form must increasingly compete for our attention with digital media.
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