Burdening the Short-term Memory with Distractions

If the brain is never at rest, it can never build up the type of conceptual schemas that lead to understanding.
If the brain is never at rest, it can never build up the type of conceptual schemas that lead to understanding.


I had never owned any type of smartphone or tablet and all my electronic needs had always been taken care of by my laptop. However, earlier in the year I purchased an Android tablet to help me with my work, and a nifty little pouch so I can wear it with me when I go places. It functions as a computer, camera, phone, and GPS all in one. Cool, eh?

The reason I bought this device was so that I could use it as a phone for my essential oil business and a GPS so that I stop getting lost. (The decision to purchase the device occurred one day when I got so lost that I took a road up into the mountains that abruptly ended without any warning. The sad thing was that I thought I was on my way home.)

I didn’t ever anticipate that I would use my tablet for emails or text messages or social media. There were two reasons for this. First, I couldn’t think of anything more distasteful than having my work become omnipresent and follow me wherever I go. I’m on the computer all the time during work, and when I’m not working the last thing I want is to be distracted by what’s happening online. Second, I had written a series of articles for the Colson Center (see here and here and here) on how the ubiquity of the internet is eroding attentiveness, as seen in the fact that today many people find it difficult to go ten minutes without checking their smart-phones for messages. (See my earlier post on why email is addictive.) The last thing I wanted was to become like that.

None of this is to say that there is anything wrong with having a smart-phone or being constantly available online – many people need to be constantly accessible for their jobs. But in my particular situation where my work involves being online all the time, I wanted to draw some sharp boundaries. I wanted to avoid the state of constant distractability that I described in my Touchstone article, “Scripture in the Age of Google” (an article based on a presentation I gave at Winchester University in the UK) where I observed that

“From animations, to hyperlinks, to pop-ups, to audible email notification, to live feeds, the internet seems designed to be always distracting our attention from one thing on to something else. When we go online, we enter what Cory Doctorow has appropriately termed an ‘ecosystem of interruption technologies.’ Our attention is scattered amid a panoply of stimuli, and our minds inundated with rapidly dispensed, and often disconnected, bits of information. In short, the calm, focused, and linear mind of the reader is being pushed aside by what Nicholas Carr, in his book The Shallows, has descriptively termed “a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts—the faster, the better.”

All to say, when I got my tablet I was alert to the temptations. At the beginning it wasn’t an issue. To start with, I didn’t even know how to check my emails on my tablet or get on Facebook, so that wasn’t a problem. But eventually I found myself in a situation where I was expecting an important email, and so I figured out how to access my messages on my tablet. I didn’t think anything of it until I found myself in a similar situation again. And again. I even began to find myself checking my email when I had no good reason to, just because I was curious and mental restless.

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Hiking in the Cascades

My tablet is still pretty much limited to receiving calls, and I’m pleased to say that I still haven’t got into the habit of checking my email while I’m hiking or spending time with my children or reading or praying. But it’s becoming harder not to. I’m finding that the longer I have my tablet, the more effort and self-control it takes not to constantly check for messages. I don’t know why this should be so hard; it’s not like I particularly want to receive messages when I’m not working. And even when I succeed in not checking my messages, I still find myself thinking about what’s happening in the online world. I find myself having to turn it off when I go on walks, or even leave it in the car – tricks I need to play on myself to keep the internet from invading my times of quiet.

When I talk to people about these types of challenges, especially the younger generation, they almost always think that the problems with our digital distractions are that it uses up too much time. According to this narrative, distractions are bad for young people today because they use up time that might be put to a better use. If a teenager admits he or she has a problem with smart-phone addiction, the nature of the problem will almost always be focused around this issue of time.

The problem with this narrative is that the main problem with distractions is not primarily that they use up time: glancing at an incoming text message while you are hiking or reading a novel may use less than a second of time. Similarly, quickly reading an email during your time of prayer may consume just as much time as taking a break to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water.

Instead, the main problem with distractions is that they take juice out of your working or short-term memory. This is a point that was helpfully explained in the Taylor Study Method’s article ‘Don’t Overcrowd Your Working Memory‘:

The crucial thing to remember is that the real problem with online distractions is not that they take up time. Glancing at a text message or a Facebook comment can be a very brief exercise occupying no more than a few seconds.

Rather, the real problem is that by exposing our minds to this constant stream of stimuli we are using up valuable cognitive resources that put a drain on the short-term memory. Our short-term memory or “working memory” can only hold so much information at any one time, which is why it is important not to overload it. Unlike your long-term memory, which can store vast amounts of data, your working memory can only take so much at any one time.

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Why is it so important to protect your working or short-term memory? Because intelligence, understanding and long-term memory are all constructed out of content that was once in our short-term or working memory.  As Nicholas Carr explained, “The depth of our intelligence hinges on our ability to transfer information from working memory to long-term memory and weave it into conceptual schemas. But the passage from working memory to long-term memory also forms the major bottleneck in our brain. Unlike long-term memory, which has vast capacity, working memory is able to hold only a very small amount of information.”

It is during times when it feels like the brain is at rest (times of quiet reflection and sleep) when we build up conceptual schemas based on the information our memory has retained. As such, our memories play a crucial role in making us who we are since the depth of our intelligence (and therefore our personality) hinges on the mind’s ability to consolidate our memories into schemas, to let everything we remember foment and chrystalize into wisdom. For there can be no knowledge without memory, and there can be no wisdom without knowledge. But this will not happen automatically if we have left the working memory in a condition of overload. Realizing the limitations of our working memory should challenge us to take stock of how we treat our brain, and it should encourage us not to let our working-memory get overloaded.

The TSM article went on to explain how our digital devices create a burden on our short-term memory even when we are not using them:

The scholarly literature from the last decade shows that having a functional cell phone present when one is trying to concentrate (including reading) creates a burden on the short-term memory even if one does not actually use the device. This is because the very thought “I wonder if someone is trying to reach me” or “I’ll just quickly check my messages at the end of this chapter” competes in the working memory (located in the front of the brain) with the cognitive resources needed for effective concentration.  The working memory becomes overloaded, not simply by those things we are thinking about directly, but by the many concerns, conversations and potential conversations that hover just beneath consciousness. This may not feel like overload only because the brain adjusts by squeezing out other things, including the type of quiet reflection that is so important for building up schemas and true understanding.

So again, the main problem with letting our minds be flooded with distractions is not that these distractions take up time that might be spent elsewhere; even when they do not take up time, these distractions consume valuable mental resources. If the brain is never at rest, it can never build up the type of conceptual schemas that lead to understanding.

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