Preface: This is the second installment in a three-part Challenge series centered around the topic of modern technology and the Christian life (read Part 1 here if you missed it). The thesis is this: in our time, three key aspects of our humanity are at risk — concentration, memory, and empathy. This threat to the full expression of our God-designed humanity deserves our attention because, as Hans Rookmaker famously asserted, “Jesus didn’t come to make us Christian; Jesus came to make us fully human.”
I used to think that long-term memories were made when short-term memories just sat in there for a while. Turns out, not so! Making memories is not a passive process but rather an active process of “moving” them, via the production of proteins in our (amazing) brains, from short-term into long-term memory. This consolidation process, though, is very fragile; overload and distraction halt the formation of long-term memories dead in its tracks. As author Nicholas Carr concludes, “The key to memory consolidation is attentiveness.” (The Shallows, 193)
Can you think of anywhere that overload and distraction are likely to be regular bedfellows? Yes, just like in last month’s Challenge, I’m thinking of the Internet here again. Not because I don’t love the Internet — I use it daily for my work and personal life. I’m using it as I type these words. But it has some subtle drawbacks that we need to identify, including the following four:
- Distraction. Discussed at greater length last month, distraction is an intentional part of the Internet’s design (as every click benefits advertisers somewhere). But because it’s so difficult to attend to one thing at a time online, “The process of memory consolidation can’t even get started.” (Carr, 193-194)
- Cognitive overload. Every time we go online, we enter an environment of heightened cognitive load, resulting from (1) the high-speed delivery of vast quantities of information and (2) the insertion of hyperlinks into text, requiring extraneous decision-making. Studies show that hypertext readers take longer and are more confused about what they have read, whereas linear text readers score higher in comprehension, memory, and learning. (Carr, 126-128)
- Screen reading. Reading on screens puts users in what’s called a “dual task” situation — they must pay attention to operating the equipment as well as comprehending the text. Unfortunately, this added mental load forms a barrier to the formation of long-term memories. One study showed screen readers to perform twice as poorly as paper readers when it came to identifying of the sequence of events in a short story they had read.
- Typing vs. handwriting. Most of us can type faster than we can handwrite, so we usually think we get better notes in class when we type. This is what’s called the “external memory” benefit of note taking — you captured it for later. But traditionally there’s been a second benefit of note taking called “encoding,” which is the mental processing you do while handwriting notes (listening for key points, determining outlines, etc.)…and studies are showing that this benefit takes a hit when you type instead of handwrite. Because they haven’t started the memory-formation process while in the class, those who type notes perform more poorly on conceptual questions and meaning-related questions (“So where does this fit with what you already know and why does it matter?”).
At Summit, we believe God carefully and wonderfully designed our brains and He intends for us to use them to the fullest. We must think well, ask hard questions, and wrestle to discover the truth. And when we find the truth, we must remember it – fully – if we are to articulate it accurately and winsomely to a watching world. Consider:
- What kind of price tag could be put on the ability to form lasting memories?
- How might a diminishment of this ability affect students, teachers, citizens, statesmen, laypeople, and clergy?
“Leaders are readers.” You probably remember hearing this oft-repeated mantra when you were at Summit. One simple remedy to the memory threat we are facing is to read real paper books, all the way through. Our challenge to you is this: choose one book (perhaps from Mike Adam’s Must-Read Book List), purchase it today, and commit to reading it by the end of the year. Then choose a few more for the New Year — maybe even ask a friend or two to read them along with you-and you’ll be off and running!
What will you be reading in the months ahead? Share your book recommendations with fellow Summit alumni!
Challenge is a piece from the Alumni Network’s monthly e-newsletter RE:SOURCE. Subscribe to the newsletter here.