Saturday, August 21, 2010

Hacking My Brain

I'm going on vacation next week.  I'm hoping there will be no wireless access of any kind, and I hope I don't figure out how to tether my netbook to my phone.

Here's why.  Yesterday, I read an article in the New York Times about five neuroscientists on a camping trip in the desert.  They are experts on the human brain who study things like memory, motivation, and attention.  While their trip didn't qualify as a real experiment, they wanted see how going off the grid affected their mood and memory.

One of the scientists in the article has a pet theory: If we are expecting new emails and Facebook updates, some part of our brain is using a little bit of energy, even if we're not currently checking for updates.  In the absence of technology, this energy would go to some other task, like better memory or problem-solving.

I've pondered this all day as I drove to critique group, shopped, and waited in traffic.  I pondered the past two weeks, where I've busily rushed about the internet: marketing my book, submitting my novella for review, posting on forums, writing tweets, composing blog posts, finishing up short stories, checking Facebook, checking book sales, and checking blog stats.  (And appositely, as I write this my phone rings!)  There is always something more to do, and nothing is ever "done".  It becomes an addiction we can all relate to. I find myself, work-day long over, refreshing at Facebook with a blank stare, waiting, hoping, wishing someone would post a YouTube video.

Once upon a time, human survival depended upon attention.  Guards and hunters would keen their ears and eyes, looking for any slight disturbance.  Even if their minds wandered, some part of their brain was reserved, listening for strange noises, watching for a rustle of leaves.  And when the moment struck, they were filled with a surge of adrenaline -- What is it? Is there danger?  Do I fight now?  Do I alert the tribe?

This dopamine reward kept us alive.

Now we look for new tweets with the same rapt attention.  Even when we aren't actually looking, some part of our brain is being held open for that moment when the mouse strays to the tab... click, is there a new email? Yes!

But it comes at a cost.  For me, I lose my creative spark.

I miss the days when all I had was a 386.  It could only do one thing at a time, and not do any of those things well.  Dialing up to a BBS or the internet took minutes, so I reserved that for a specific time of day.

Ideas came faster and stayed in focus.  I would dwell on a story or character all day long, maybe even for a week, until I had a chance to write it down.  These ideas gave me a lot of energy (dopamine and adrenaline), and nothing else competed to reward me.

I still get these surges of idea-energy.  But they quickly vanish, replaced by the next cheap thrill.  Last week, I started a story, got 600 words in, and became blocked.  While falling asleep, I thought about it, and finally got some ideas.  But by the next morning, after touching the internet, that energy was gone, and I found myself trying desperately to get it back.  I finally did, but it was a struggle, where I spent a lot more time screen-staring than writing.  It's something I'm not used to.

So I'm looking forward to this vacation.  I'm taking a netbook, and I plan on spending a lot of time working on my next project.  No marketing, and hopefully no (or almost no) twitter, Facebook, or other online distractions.

Long term, I have no solution.  Any restriction I think of imposing upon myself is met with internal rejection from my inner-addict.  My biggest problem is that I want to know what happens next... I can't bear to let Twitter scroll by without getting caught up.  And if I go too long without checking it, I will get too far behind.  It's a compulsion.

What do you think?  And if you read the New York Times article, what ideas does it inspire for you?


  1. I've always been able to follow several trails of thought at one time, picking them up, discarding them, then picking up again exactly where I left off just as some people read several books at once. In fact, I can let a thought mature in the back of my mind whilst thinking of something else with the front (like listening to the radio whilst reading) so I'm not too concerned.

    But my advice to you is too pick a time... any time will do, depending on your circumstances. I'd suggest two hours as it is long enough to get a lot done, but not so long that you will be losing lots on Twitter.

    Maybe 2 till four or 8 till 10, whatever. At the start of your time unplug from the internet. Actually physically unplug the wireless router or the phone line, whatever.

    Let that be your writing time.

  2. That is one of the ideas I've weighed, and will probably try it. I'm great at multitasking, and in my IT career, I could troubleshoot three things at once and check Twitter just fine. It's more of a problem for long-term thought... For me the energy of a creative idea needs time to form; not just hours but days.

    I suspect that week-long sabbaticals might do it, but that's just too long! :) I'll try several-hour bites though. Maybe my brain will re-train.

    I've also thought of breaking my month into pieces: a couple of weeks of heavy writing (focused), then a week or two of marketing (fragmented).

    Thanks for the comment!

  3. I'm with you. For me it's become my iPhone sucking the life out of me.
    When did harvesting crops in We Farm become so important??
    I may need an "unplug" week soon...

  4. The funny thing is, that was the last full post I made to this blog. Maybe I unplugged too much? Or from the wrong things, considering my email and Twitter still get attention. haha. Oh well, I'm almost done with my second novel since that time, and then I'll be back into the action!