This is Your Brain on Facebook

18 Jan 2012 #cognition #Columbia #facebook

I wrote this as an Op-Ed for the last progression of University Writing. Posted here to share.

A recent study found that 87% of US undergraduates are on Facebook for an average of 93 minutes daily. At 11 hours a week that’s nearly as long as many of us spend in class. If 12 hours of classroom time is supposed to not just teach us facts but also train us to become more complex thinkers why do we pretend that 11 hours of Facebook won’t have an affect, too? Facebook asks us to constantly sift through posts, skim, evaluate, and make microscopic comments. By using Facebook we are training our minds to condense all issues into easily “like”-able one-liners, rather than complex essays.

During finals last month many of us turned to Facebook to relieve stress. Many students, including myself, found that Facebook became not a limited relief valve but a means of procrastination. By the night before an exam we thought our only recourse was to block Facebook. Then, finally, our true academic selves would shine in blissful focus and productivity.

If only it was that easy. The distraction and inability to focus that led us to block Facebook wasn’t because we were using Facebook that night. It was the result of our brain adapting to excel at the Facebook friendly tasks we demanded of it, at the expense of less frequent tasks, such as deep reading. After so many hours on Facebook over so many months the Facebook way of shallow thinking was dominant. The focused contemplative mindset became a difficult to achieve anomaly. The night before a paper was due was simply too late to change anything. Even though we were offline we carried Facebook’s in our cognition.

Any new intellectual technology, including Facebook, encourages certain ways of thinking and discourages others. The invention of writing allowed humanity to easily store and retrieve information, a laborious process in oral cultures, and in turn led to an explosion of knowledge. However Socrates, in Plato’s Phaedrus, warns of the cognitive downside to writing by retelling the legend of king Thalmus, who, upon receiving the gift of writing from the god Theuth immediately questions the tradeoff it requires. Readers, Socrates says, will “be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant” because there was no oral instruction, and therefore, in his opinion, no deep learning. Writing fundamentally changed how we think. Today Facebook is changing it again. It encourages us to think in terms of connections, which may be advantageous in an increasingly interdisciplinary world, but it discourages deep reading, analysis, and debate. We must acknowledge these changes, and then adapt to them.

Facebook has many advantages, such as staying in touch with friends & family. However research, and common sense, suggest that large amounts of unfocused Facebook browsing damages our ability to concentrate, to understand complex ideas, and to develop our own ideas. Must we choose to either concede our thought patterns to Mark Zuckerberg, or abandon Facebook entirely? Neither is a great choice.

Instead of simply embracing or abandoning Facebook take the opportunity presented by the new semester to assess your use over the long run. What benefits does it provide you? How can you maximize those benefits, while reducing the costs? By becoming a conscientious user today, by finals at the end of the semester your brain will be better trained to focus and think richer thoughts.

Being deliberate about Facebook isn’t easy, but hopefully a few of these techniques, which helped me, will help you. Schedule a concentrated block of Facebook time rather than browsing whenever the urge strikes; this shifts Facebook into a hobby rather than a shameful timewasting habit. When you’re off Facebook, be off Facebook; avoid the siren call of a quick status post, “Studying sooooo hard at Butler!” Adjust your Facebook settings to reduce notification emails; it’s much harder to resist temptation when it thrusts itself into your inbox. Don’t use Facebook as a study break; it forces you into the skim-evaluate-quip mindset rather than read-analyze-write. Plus, just like potato chips, it’s awfully hard to limit it to “just 2 minutes.” Experiment with different ways to control your use, and see what works for you.

Facebook will one day be passé, but whatever replaces it will affect our cognition, just like speech, writing, email, and Facebook itself already have. By first understanding the medium, and then deliberately engaging with it, we can attempt to capture the benefits and avoid the harmful effects.