O'Reilly: Is the Information Age damaging our brains?
There's something wrong with my brain. I know, I know . . . but I'm not talking about my politics.
It's the brain itself. I can feel it changing. My short-term memory is shot. I forget what I'm thinking mid-sentence. And I find myself doing bizarre stuff, like searching for something I'm holding in my hand or putting things away in incongruous places. If I can't find my cellphone, for example, I surreptitiously check inside the refrigerator, pretending to look for milk or juice. I don't want my wife to know quite yet that she's married to a crazy person.
Some of this is the natural process of growing older. I get that. But I'm increasingly convinced that the process is being accelerated by today's communication technologies. I can't prove it, but I feel like my brain is being rewired. It is being made more shallow as a coping mechanism for all the data pouring in. (Have fun with that one.)
In my field, political communications, it's not just happening to old fogies like me -- I'm actually only 50 -- but to young people as well. Colleagues in their 20s and 30s are reporting the exact same symptoms, along with sleeplessness, heart palpitations and occasional mental disconnection, otherwise known as space-outs.
A lot of us joke about it, but there's something real going on that demands study. I don't know about other professions, but anyone working in high-pressure, fast-paced public relations would be a good subject. The number of communications apps and tools one uses in my industry is absurd. I thought about that while trying to write a 30-second radio script. As I tried to type 74 words, the mobile phone rang seven or eight times; 30 emails came in; a dozen text messages landed; Twitters tweeted; BlackBerry Messenger went "bing, bing, bing"; Google Instant Message bubbles popped on my computer screen; Facebook messages were announced, both regular and instant, and my landline rang every time I didn't answer the cellphone. All these communications demanded an immediate answer. For those in my field, to varying degrees, that goes on 12 hours a day seven days a week. It has to take a toll.
It's weird the way the brain works. I had dinner last weekend with old friends -- while texting, tweeting, messaging and emailing -- and we laughed about old times. I was able to recall the names of girls we flirted with 35 years ago, but I don't remember a single thing about what happened in the first season of the Netflix series "House of Cards," which I watched last year . . . admittedly, in a 24-hour span.
One theory being studied is that the brain is cutting out short-term memories for the same reason that the human body dropped the tail a million or so years back. With the ability to instantly look things up on computers and mobile devices, the brain no longer needs to store some short-term information, so it doesn't. Another study says the bombarded brain cannot filter out what's important anymore, and so it discards everything at times. Yet another study claims that brain gray matter in heavy Internet users is physically atrophying.
I can't tell you who's right and who's wrong. All I know is that something funky is going on upstairs and I don't like it.
Now, back to work.