Longtime readers of this blog know about my schizophrenic view of modern technology. On the one hand, I have been deeply involved in technology for over 15 years and I greatly appreciate its many benefits. I blog, I have a facebook page, and I see how technology helps to spread the Gospel in many ways. On the other hand, I recognize that these benefits do not come without a cost: increased access to pornography, a disconnect between people, and increased emphasis on consumption are just a few downsides to new technologies. As Catholics, we are to use technology for divine purposes, but we must be honest about the downsides as well.
One of the biggest potential downsides, and one I think often overlooked, is how use of the Internet changes the way we think. I have noticed in my own life that increased use of the Internet affects my thought processes, making them less focused and more “jittery.” It appears that my experience is not unique:
The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains
During the winter of 2007, a UCLA professor of psychiatry named Gary Small recruited six volunteers—three experienced Web surfers and three novices—for a study on brain activity. He gave each a pair of goggles onto which Web pages could be projected. Then he slid his subjects, one by one, into the cylinder of a whole-brain magnetic resonance imager and told them to start searching the Internet. As they used a handheld keypad to Google various preselected topics—the nutritional benefits of chocolate, vacationing in the Galapagos Islands, buying a new car—the MRI scanned their brains for areas of high activation, indicated by increases in blood flow.
The two groups showed marked differences. Brain activity of the experienced surfers was far more extensive than that of the newbies, particularly in areas of the prefrontal cortex associated with problem-solving and decisionmaking. Small then had his subjects read normal blocks of text projected onto their goggles; in this case, scans revealed no significant difference in areas of brain activation between the two groups. The evidence suggested, then, that the distinctive neural pathways of experienced Web users had developed because of their Internet use.
The gist of this article is that the Web is increasing our brain’s ability to search and collect data, but it is also decreasing its ability to focus and do deep thinking. This is troubling on many levels, but it also could have serious implications for the spiritual life.
A few months ago, I wrote a multi-part series on The Nine Levels of Prayer. The first four levels of prayer are “ascetical prayer,” in which man is the initiator of prayer, not God. These levels include vocal prayer, meditation, affective prayer, and acquired recollection. These levels eventually lead one to the higher levels of prayer, such as contemplation, where the Holy Spirit initiates the prayer and leads the soul closer to God. But to get there, one typically needs to go through ascetical prayer, which means one needs to use his brain for focused, deep thinking. But what happens if the brain, through constant use of the Internet, no longer can do this type of thinking? Will we be able to pray as we ought?
This has not just been theoretical in my own life. Fr. Benedict Groeschel wrote in the Foreword to my book Who is Jesus Christ?:
I suggest that no one read this book quickly, for although it is not lengthy, it contains a great deal of information as well as many opportunities for prayer and meditation. I also suggest that the reader delve into one chapter at a time, preferably with a copy of the Bible on hand. Eric Sammons has not written the kind of book you can pick up and put down, simply picking up where you left off at some later time. He has written instead a careful and thoughtful study that requires the reader to approach it with the same care with which it was written.
Fr. Benedict says that my book is not one to pick up and put down while reading, but it was also not one that I could pick up and put down while writing. I wrote the book originally as personal meditations, and much of it was composed while on retreat at a monastery, and the rest was done at libraries with my cell phone and laptop left at home. Not that I didn’t try to write elsewhere, but whenever I tried to write while sitting at my desk, I was unable to get anywhere: I simply cannot write reflections of any value if I have easy access to email or the Internet – I am too likely to be distracted and lose my focus.
This is one reason why one of my rules for the Internet includes #6: Take at least one day off a week from the Internet. If we are constantly “connected” then we run the risk of being disconnected in the spiritual life. We have to give ourselves the opportunities for focused attention on the Lord through prayer, lectio divina, and other spiritual practices. Otherwise, the focus of our lives will end up being Google, not God.