Neuroplasticity is not a topic often discussed in normal conversation. Yet neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to create and close neural pathways in response to repetitive behavior—is something everyone needs to start thinking about more often in light of the technological age we are currently living in.
Nicholas Carr and Sherry Turkle are two of the leading voices calling twenty-first-century people to consider not only the advantages of information technology but also the deleterious effects of its uncritical use on our psyches and society. Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains—an expansion of his article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”—explores how neuroplasticity adapts to consistent and heavy Internet use, resulting in mental habits such as continuous partial attention, impaired creativity, and shallow as opposed to deep reading and thinking. Carr observes,
Just as neurons that fire together wire together, neurons that don’t fire together don’t wire together. As the time we spend scanning Web pages crowds out the time we spend reading books, as the time we spend exchanging bite-sized text messages crowds out the time we spend composing sentences and paragraphs, as the time we spend hopping across links crowds out the time we devote to quiet reflection and contemplation, the circuits that support those old intellectual functions and pursuits weaken and begin to break apart. The brain recycles the disused neurons and synapses for other, more pressing work. We gain new skills and perspectives but lose old ones.
Social psychologist Sherry Turkle has studied the personal and societal impacts of computer technology for thirty years. In her two most recent books, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other and Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Turkle cites research suggesting that across generations, computer-mediated communication such as e-mail and texting is increasingly preferred over face-to-face or telephone conversations. She shares Carr’s concern about the negative impact this has on our thought processes but foremost among her concerns is that of how our saturation in digital communication adversely affects our capacities for solitude, empathy, creativity, and substantive interpersonal interaction. “Before technology allowed us to be anywhere anytime,” she writes, “conversation with other people was a big part of how we satisfied our brains’ need for stimulation. But now, through our devices, our brains are offered a continuous and endlessly diverting menu that requires less work.”
Carr and Turkle sound what I believe are necessary alarms without being alarmists. Although Carr and Turkle write from the perspective of a secular worldview, they lack the biblical and theological framework to account for why this is so disturbing—but their warnings should pique the attention of Christians who do. Their conclusions should spurr us to consider what spiritual formation and discipleship must look like in the era of what Quentin Schultze has called informationism, “a non-discerning, vacuous faith in the collection and dissemination of information as a route to social progress and personal happiness.”
Since it has become somewhat customary to preface any discussion on the maladies of technology with an aside about being a Luddite, I follow suit and give you my word that my thoughts on these matters are not motivated by an unwillingness to get with the times, a refusal to acknowledge the wondrous benefits of communication technology, or an antipathy to new-fangled gadgets. On the contrary, my thinking about these matters was born out of my fascination with and captivation by the world of online communication. My interest in this topic is from my growing awareness of how the regular use of these technologies has made some things which I used to do with ease much more difficult. I am far from a technophobe. I am of the same mind as Turkle who writes, “We don’t need to reject or disparage technology. We need to put it in its place.” For Christians, that requires contemplating scripture’s revelation of the telos of human existence.
One of Turkle’s primary concerns is that our inundation with technologically-mediated communication seriously impairs our ability to develop empathy. This is so not only because face-to-face communication in which we can see each other’s facial expressions and body language is integral to a fuller understanding of how others feel. Our craving for the constant connectivity and ongoing stimulation impairs our ability to tolerate solitude and self-reflection—two essential things for our ability to empathize. Turkle sees a necessary relationship between the ability to be alone and the ability to reach out to others in compassion instead of in self-seeking neediness.
It’s the capacity for solitude that allows you to reach out to others and see them as separate and independent. You don’t need them to be anything other than who they are. This means you can listen to them and hear what they have to say. This makes the capacity for solitude essential to the development of empathy. And this is why solitude marks the beginning of conversation’s virtuous circle. If you are comfortable with yourself, you can put yourself in someone else’s place.
Relating to and conversing with others with such freedom leads in turn to self-reflection, which when conducted in further solitude, expands the capacity for empathy. This is especially the case, says Turkle, for children, whose capacity for solitude is enabled by being in the presence of an “attentive other.” Familiarity and comfort with solitary silences are fostered by being in the company of others who introduce them to the experience. As an example of such mentorship, Turkle asks us to
imagine a mother giving her two-year-old daughter a bath, allowing the girl’s reverie with her bath toys as she makes up stories and learns to be alone with her thoughts, all the while knowing her mother is present and available to her. Gradually, the bath, taken alone, is a time when the child is comfortable with her imagination. Attachment enables solitude.
However, when our minds become trained to demand constant stimulation by incessant input, this feedback loop is destroyed.
We find our voice in solitude, and we bring it to public and private conversations that enrich our capacity for self-reflection. Now that circle has been disrupted; there is a crisis in our capacity to be alone and together. But we are in flight from those face-to-face conversations that enrich our imaginations and shepherd the imagined into the real. There is a crisis in our ability to understand others and be heard.
Turkle’s link between solitude and relationship bears striking resemblance to the observations of German pastor-theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who in his classic work on Christian community issues the sober warning: “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.” The person who runs to the company of others in order to escape being alone with himself will do harm to himself and the community. Such a person is not genuinely desirous of Christian fellowship but self-evasion. “The person who comes into fellowship because he is running away from himself is misusing it for the sake of diversion. . . . He is really not seeking community at all, but only distraction which will allow him to forget his loneliness for a brief time, the very alienation that creates the deadly isolation of man.”
Seeking solitude at the expense of community is equally destructive for the Christian. The call to follow Christ is also a call into his community, the church. “If you scorn the fellowship of the brethren, you reject the call of Christ, and thus your solitude can only be hurtful to you.” Bonhoeffer points out that both solitude and community by themselves have “profound pitfalls and perils,” explaining that “One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair.”
Never Really Together
It is unfortunate that Christians all too often adopt a naïve instrumentalist view of information technology. IT, we are told, is neutral and can be used for either good or ill. Such a view forgets that technologies come with inherent values. Carr refers to this as a technology’s intellectual ethic, “a set of assumptions about how the human mind works or should work,” and notes that it is rarely recognized by its inventors who are “usually so intent on solving a particular problem or untangling some thorny scientific or engineering dilemma that they don’t see the broader implications of their work. The users of the technology are also usually oblivious to its ethic. They, too, are concerned with the practical benefits they gain from employing the tool.” The ethic may be unintentional and unrecognized but it’s still there.
John Dyer, in his work From the Garden to the City, sees this. He defines technology as “the human activity of using tools to transform God’s creation for practical purposes,” and adds that the tools we employ to create cultural goods are themselves elements of culture and therefore “mediate a set of values, meaning, and identity back to us.” Harris notes, “Every revolution in communication technology—from papyrus to the printing press to Twitter—is as much an opportunity to be drawn away from something as it is to be drawn toward something.”
For example, one of the enticements of digital technology is that it’s easy and fast to be in contact with those who are distant. Certainly this is a tremendous benefit. However, as Turkle notes, something is amiss when such mediated communication is regarded as more desirable than embodied interaction in shared space. She laments that neglecting the presence of those before us in order to give preference to those at a distance by way of our mobile devices has become a social norm. “What is a place if those who are physically present have their attention on the absent?”
Although she doesn’t use the language, what Turkle is describing is what Douglas Groothuis perceptively described as cyberspace’s promise of “emancipation from the drag of the body.” Turkle identifies numerous factors that make real time face-to-face conversation less desirable than computer-mediated connectivity. Among them, the inability to edit one’s discourse as is possible via texting and other forms of digital communication, the attention required in real time conversation that impedes multitasking, and the necessity to endure boring and awkward silences. All of these have to do with creaturely limitations, the “drag of the body.”
Followers of Christ cannot afford to be mindless or uncritical about our use of digital technology. Rather, we must give serious thought to how we might be being shaped, even discipled, by our devices pondering whether that formation is consistent with what we know to be God’s creative and redemptive purposes. As John Dyer notes, “Psalm 1 tells us that we are molded and shaped by the company we keep, but when we connect with people through technology, the medium becomes part of the equation in how that molding and shaping takes place.” The patterns of the world we cannot conform to consists of more than gross immorality. It entails any system of values and practices that competes with those commended and commanded by the triune Lord. To quote Dyer again:
Christians who live God-honoring lives in the digital world are those who can discern the tendencies built into all technology and then decide when those tendencies are in line with godly values, and when those tendencies are damaging to the soul. When we are aware of the tendencies and values inherent in our technology, we have the best chance of avoiding the negative trade-offs it brings and instead using the technology to serve God.
By God’s common grace, non-Christian thinkers like Carr and Turkle are valuable guides to discerning such tendencies.
Bonhoeffer is helpful as well. In his chapter on community in Life Together, he calls the physical presence of other Christians “a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer” and cites as evidence Paul’s call to Timothy to come to him in his imprisonment, his earnest prayer that he might see the Thessalonians “face to face,” and the closing words from John’s second epistle concerning which he says, “The aged John knows that his joy will not be full until he can come to his own people and speak face to face instead of writing with ink.”
Commenting on the relevance of John’s words to the digital communication, Dyer writes that
The great temptation of the digital generation is to inadvertently disagree with John and assume that online presence offers the same kind of “complete joy” as offline presence. Our problem is not that technologically mediated relationships are unreal, nor is the problem that all online communication is self-focused and narcissistic. Rather, the danger is that just like the abundance of food causes us to mistake sweet food for nourishing food, and just like the abundance of information can drown out deep thinking, the abundance of virtual connection can drown out the kind of life-giving, table-oriented life that Jesus cultivated among his disciples.
In a column for the Dallas Morning News titled “How Would Jesus Call?” written when dumb phones were the norm, Ken Myers, producer and host of the Mars Hill Audio Journal asked, “What could cell phones possibly have to do with the incarnation?” to which he insightfully replied,
Both involve the significance of physical, embodied presence before others.
The presence of another person before us is a kind of moral claim, asking for the recognition appropriate to a fellow human being. Likewise, when we make ourselves present to others, we are showing respect. Thus, when we visit someone in the hospital or in prison (a situation Jesus alludes to in Matthew 25) instead of just phoning or sending flowers, we demonstrate by our presence a higher level of regard for their well-being.
Turkle observes that “self shaped in a world of rapid response measures success by calls made, e-mails answered, texts replied to, contacts reached. This self is calibrated on the basis of what technology proposes by what it makes easy.” Information technologies place a high value on retrieving the greatest amount of data in the least possible amount of time with the result that skimming, scanning, and multitasking are the new virtues as well as the disciplines by which we are further formed.
Carr and Turkle respectively caution us that the overuse of information technologies can impair our ability to read texts and each other well. In the same way that we become impatient with texts, searching feverishly for what we deem interesting or entertaining, so too we yearn to scroll and surf through each other’s words to get to “the good stuff” or to add the comment we’ve been mentally composing to the conversational thread. Undisciplined and mindless use of information technologies can afflict us with relational attention deficit and consequently retard our ability to love others well through the ministry of listening. This should be of grave concern to all believers.
Bonhoeffer called the ministry of listening “the first service that one owes to others in the fellowship.” He proceeds to explain that in listening we imitate God:
Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear. So it is His work that we do for our brother when we learn to listen to him. Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others,that this is the one service thy have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.
What Bonhoeffer goes on to describe about the dearth of listeners in his era is all the more true in ours:
Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either, he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too. This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there is nothing left but spiritual chatter and clerical condescension arrayed in pious words. One who cannot listen long and patiently will presently be talking beside the point and be never really speaking to others albeit he be not conscious of it. Anyone who thinks that his time is too valuable to spend keeping quiet will eventually have no time for God and his brother, but only for himself and for his own follies.
Carr avers that the “Net’s cacophony of stimuli short-circuits both conscious and unconscious thought, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively.” To the extent that this is true, Christians must take special heed since creativity, imagination, and deep thought are necessary in order to obey the Lord’s command to consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.
Despite her serious concerns about the societal impact that our unreflective use of digital communication is having, Turkle remains optimistic that recovery is possible. “We have time to make the corrections,” she writes. “And [time] to remember who we are—creatures of history, of deep psychology, of complex relationships. Of conversations artless, risky, and face-to-face.” All of these descriptions are accurate but we are far more: we are creatures of the living, tri-personal God whom we are called to image in community.
Contrary to a perspective that privileges digital communication over personal presence, the Bible prioritizes presence over all other forms of communication when possible. One might ask, “What is the Bible but an ancient form of technologically mediated communication?” Without doubt the scriptures are textually-mediated communication. However, it is evident that its authors valued being physically present with the recipients of their correspondence over all other forms of communication. The apostle John’s second and third epistles offer clear evidence of this with these words: “Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead I hope to come to you and talk face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 John 1:12). Similar words conclude his third epistle: “I had much to write to you, but I would rather not write with pen and ink. I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face” (3 John 1:13–14). It could not be said of John that he would rather text than talk. With a little effort, hopefully it will not be said of us either.
Cover image by Warren Wong.