Over the last few years we’ve heard about new conditions such as “BlackBerry Thumb.” Human evolution did not prepare us for the way we overuse our hands to send text messages and write emails on our smart phones, and this leads to pain and ailments that we haven’t had to endure in the millions of years since we developed opposable thumbs.
Makes sense. I got my first cell phone in 1987, and in the last 22 years my hands have been subjected to gymnastics they hadn’t seen in the previous 22. It often hurts.
Something even more sinister is happening to our brains. Human beings evolved to deal with the social issues of small clans and the vocational challenges of the hunter gatherer. As time went on and civilization progressed, we began to encounter much more information, and by Elizabethan times the data an educated person was exposed during his or her entire lifetime had expanded to equal that of a current weekday edition of the New York Times. Now, of course, the information we are inundated in our contemporary lifetimes has multiplied well beyond that.
BlackBerry Thumb is nothing compared to the mental tendonitis we’re inflicting on our brains. We live in a constant state of information overload and time poverty. We feel the only option is multitasking and multithinking, but our frontal cortices, with their limited capacity of dealing with about 40 bytes of information each second, aren’t very good at multi-anything. The result is that we’re often distracted while interacting with people, as our minds hyperlink from topic to somewhat-related topic, and every few seconds remember that we’re supposed to be in a conversation.
The people with whom we’re speaking recognize that we’re not engaged, leading to another ill of modern life: People repeating themselves over and over, because they don’t have confidence they’re being heard. This leads to a pernicious feedback loop, as the listener listens even less as the speaker repeats himself, leading the speaker to repeat even more and the listener to listen even less. It’s frightening to think how often things we say to people in person get as much true attention as a random tweet.
Hyperlinking has become a model not only for distracted thinking but for disjointed group conversations. I spend a lot of time facilitating group discussions, and I often see people try to “click” on a phrase in someone else’s sentence in order to jump to a related topic. I’ve learned reel them back by clicking on an imaginary “back” button.
Our modern world is busier, more fragmented, more crowded, more disjointed and noisier than anything we were made for. We’re not going to change the world we live in – in fact, we love it and we wouldn’t want to change it. But let’s recognize that we’re not prepared for it, and be aware of the challenges it imposes on us. Let’s try to filter the noise and use our amazing, highly-evolved mammalian brain in a way that leverages its strengths, not in a way that taxes its powers.
Otherwise we’ll end up with a severe case of mental tendonitis.