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The Constant Media Chatter in Our Head

Nicholas Carr and The Shallows

In his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, author Nicholas Carr‘s main point is that the Internet has reshaped the way in which our brains function and process thought.  Due to our neuroplasticity – the flexibility of our brains to adjust to newer ways of processing information – the way in which we have received information through the Internet can reprogram our brain to take in information in this way.  According to Carr, we absorb cyber-information in bits and pieces, in what he once described as a stream of particles.  In chapter seven of The Shallows, Carr spends a considerable amount of time discussing hyperlinks in online articles and how they can actually impede their readers from absorbing the information as effectively as they could if they read the same article with no hyperlinks (citing one experiment in which two sets of people read the same article, one set with and the other set without hyperlinks; the set of readers without hyperlinks reported getting more out of the article than did the set with hyperlinks).

Early on in the book, Carr discusses Marshall McLuhan‘s idea that when our culture was an oral one, humans were more in touch with their senses, and when our culture became a literate one we detached ourselves from our senses.  Now with the phenomenon of the Internet, our brains have taken a different turn in what some argue is for the worse.  As Carr wrote:

Our use of the Internet involves many paradoxes, but the one that promises to have the greatest long-term influence over how we think is this one: the Net seizes our attention only to scatter it.  (Carr 118)

Building on his argument, Carr quotes professor emeritus and neuroscientist Michael Merzenich, who warned that the heavy use of the Internet and its tools, such as search engines, can have serious neurological consequences, as well as Gary Small, professor of psychiatry at UCLA who explained how the daily intake of the Internet and similar technologies stimulates the alteration of brain cells and the release of neurotransmitters in our brain, which over time strengthens certain neural pathways of the brain and weakens other, older ones.

What Exactly is Media Chatter?

While not often the first definition we think of when we hear this word, in the field of communication, “noise” is defined as anything that interrupts, hinders, or bogs down the clearness or efficiency of a communication.  In this same regard, all of the noise that comes from our media – viral videos, music, interviews (or just the sounds of people talking) – have the ability to create a “chatter” in our brains which, once turned on, is rather difficult to turn off.  Take the below video as an example.

Given my own experiences, media chatter is something I have had to deal with for years now.  As most college-aged or even teenage/adolescents will say, we thrive on our computer-mediated technologies.  They almost become addictions and it often seems as though we must use superhuman qualities to pull ourselves away from the technologies when it is “time to concentrate”, perhaps on something strenuous.  I was never quite able to put it into words or analyze this dilemma until another Fordham professor of mine, Dr. Janet Sternberg, consistently encouraged our Communication & Technology class to occasionally “turn everything off” in order to acquire a clearer mind.  Below is an excerpt from a lecture she gave in the fall of 2011.

A few years ago…I read an interesting article in The New York Times…(in which two) artists were being interviewed about how they got to be such geniuses, and they explained that the most important thing to them was silence.  That, no, they didn’t walk around with iPods in their ears all the time, constant music…because they felt that silence, emptiness, the blank page, so to speak, was essential for thinking and creativity.  And I think more and more research is coming out to suggest that the constant barrage of stimulation is not particularly healthy.

What Does Media Chatter Feel Like?

Going off of this notion, I have often noted that I must go to extreme levels of self-mental discipline in order to concentrate once I have “fired up” the media chatter in my head by utilizing (over-utilizing?) my Internet-mediated technologies, most especially when it’s “time to concentrate” on something which could be considered strenuous.  For instance, the days leading up to “midterm week” and most especially the days (even week, or two!) leading up to final exams and due dates for papers are somewhat of a mild struggle for me.  If I have spent the better part of an hour listening to music, watching videos on YouTube, and scrolling through my news feed on Facebook, it feels virtually impossible to “turn everything off”, as Dr. Sternberg would recommend, and spend the rest of the morning and early afternoon studying.  Even if I physically take my ear buds out and close the browser windows on my laptop, I will often still feel the chatter swarming through my head (whether it’s a song still stuck in my head, or perhaps the urge or calling to check Facebook for the umpteenth time), and find my brain overly stimulated (chattering) on more interesting content than the content I must write about or study.  It is almost as though it takes just as long to “come down” from the media chatter in our heads as it does to fire up the chatter in the first place.  If I decide to listen to music and work on a paper at the same time, I find that I can get very little done – the music seems to absorb my thoughts, and being able to “hear myself think” over the musical lyrics feels like an impossible feat.

I notice that the best time to get efficient work done is the first thing in the morning, as soon as I wake up.  I have gone so far as to hide my ear buds from myself, or have a friend take them from me, to prevent my plugging them into my laptop and attempting to take a break and watch a YouTube video or listen to music. My mind seems to be the clearest as soon as I wake up from sleep, and usually find that I can write a good portion of a paper and/or study efficiently for an exam on a clear, unstimulated mind.  Sleep, once achieved, can finally be the temporary means by which we “turn off” the media chatter in our heads.  However, once we decide to turn everything back on, our brains are likely not the same for the rest of the day, for we are overly and constantly stimulating our brain via technologies, seeming to beckon us to engage in something more interesting and (arguably) less thankless than what we academically must do.

To conclude, the best way to define “media chatter” is the overstimulation of the brain, the physically silent but mentally loud equivalent to being in a room full of music or people conversing.  In avoiding the inability to escape from the firm grip of these distracting technologies, we find ourselves in a position where we must push ourselves to get everything we need to wholeheartedly focus on completed before we give in to the urge technology imposes upon us.

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