Managing Email (part 1)

In a previous post I quoted Nicholas Carr about the cognitive demands created by hyperlinks. Carr also makes some helpful observations about why we should avoid checking our email during the middle of any task:

“Studies of office workers who use computers reveal that they constantly stop what they’re doing to read and respond to incoming e-mails. It’s not unusual for them to glance at their in-box thirty or forty times an hour (though when asked how frequently they look, they’ll often give a much lower figure). Since each glance represents a small interruption of thought, a momentary redeployment of mental resources, the cognitive cost can be high. Psychological research long ago proved what most of us know from experience: frequent interruptions scatter our thoughts, weaken our memory, and make us tense and anxious. The more complex the train of thought we’re involved in, the greater the impairment the distractions cause. …Many studies have shown that switching between just two tasks can add substantially to our cognitive load, impeding our thinking and increasing the likelihood that we’ll overlook or misinterpret important information.”

It may sound easy to say, “Turn off all messaging devices when studying,” but many people find this incredibly difficult, especially when the computer itself is the principal study. When we receive a positive email or text message, small amounts of the chemical dopamine are released in the brain. Though the short-term benefits of receiving a message are insignificant compared to the long-term benefits of concentrated study, the promise of more dopamine can cause us to become addicted to our messaging devices.

Every new message “[serves] as jolts of energy that recharge the compulsion engine,” MIT media scholar Judith Donath recently told Scientific American. These rewards function “much like the frisson a gambler receives as a new card hits the table. Cumulatively, the effect is potent and hard to resist.”

Tony Dokoupil made this same point in a recent Newsweek article. “We may appear to be choosing to use this technology,” he said, “but in fact we are being dragged to it by the potential of short-term rewards. Every ping could be social, sexual, or professional opportunity, and we get a mini-reward, a squirt of dopamine, for answering the bell.”

Remember what we said in our earlier posts about neuroplasticity. The brain becomes what we use it to be. This means that every time we turn away from our study to focus on messages—even if it is only for a split second to see if we have any new messages—we are inadvertently training our brain to be distracted, to lack focus, and to flit from one thing to another. Because the brain becomes what we use it to be, this seemingly harmless activities are actually rerouting the neuropathways in our brains.

Further Reading

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