The Boston Globe recently published an article titled, “How the city hurts your brain…And what you can do about it.” by Frontal Cortex blogger Jonah Lehrer. The substance of the article is that the chaos and complexity of dense urban environments have deleterious effects on our attention span, mechanisms of impulse control and emotional well being. In contrast, natural settings rich in biodiversity have the opposite effect. Lehrer cites research suggesting that the trade off for the loss of focus is an increase in ingenuity and creative novelty.
This is an interesting observation, that has implications for a society that is increasingly enmeshed in communication networks. The same kind of bazaar shock that overcomes mental faculties in the city center may be found in the living room, class room or board room. Wireless networked devices provide a river of information. Sports scores, political spin, celebrity gossip and stock prices wash past us in real time. We, the young information professionals, are encouraged to be baptized in this river. Washed away are not our sins, but our egos. Not egos in the sense of self importance, but egos as in grounded self. That self which is neither at the mercy of base impulses or beset by guilts for satisfying those impulses. The river is no substitute for self.
Yet, it is not possible to become unbaptized. Once you’re dunked, you stay dunked. An information professional abstaining from information is a bum. As the article suggests, going into the wild can help reconstitute a mind that is stimulated to distraction by the bazaar, but can it do the same for the mind that’s tasted of the river? Can you really be at peace in the woods when your iPhone still has edge coverage?
I have long thought that the future of information technology was to bring it closer and closer to the human body, until the access point for networked information was the body’s own nervous system. Think classic cyberpunk interfacing. Now I have to consider the implications of this internalization of the river. Having the source of innovation always at one’s whim is an intoxicating proposition, but having a perpetually diverted consciousness hardly seems worth it. The radical transhumanist approach would be to use an fMRI to find out what part of the brain responds to biodiversity, and stimulate it endogenously. So what about the less radical proposition? Can you be an information professional in a shack in the woods? We were all promised an end to cities in the 1990s. Everyday telecommuting is now right up there with flying cars and robot butlers in the pantheon of unrealized Buck Rogers conveniences. But must it be so? If the head of the river is in our heads, who cares where the mouths are?
The upshot is, now that we know that constant overstimulation has negative consequences, and that those consequences are ameliorated fairly easily, the onus is on each of us to insist that we be given the opportunity to ease our mental burdens. It’s our well being, and we have the right to protect it.