Steven Johnson’s 2005 book Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter, offered an enormous boon to everyone who wanted to defend the neurological virtues of our increasingly technologized and media-driven culture. I remember hearing Doug Wilson speak at our former church, where he cited Johnson’s book–which was then required reading at New Saint Andrew’s College–as balancing out the work of Neil Postman.
In Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains, Carr responded to Johnson’s claim that book reading under stimulates the senses compared to using a computer. Here is Carr’s rebuttal:
Steven Johnson, in his 2005 book Everything Bad is Good for You, contrasted the widespread, teeming neural activity seen in the brains of computer users with the much more muted activity evident in the brains of book readers. The comparison led him to suggest that computer use provides more intense mental stimulation than does book reading. The neural evidence could even, he wrote, lead a person to conclude that ‘reading books chronically understimulates the senses.’ But while Johnson’s diagnosis is correct, his interpretation of the differing patterns of brain activity is misleading. It is the very fact that book reading ‘understimulates the senses’ that makes the activity so intellectually rewarding. By allowing us to filter out distractions, to quiet the problem-solving functions of the frontal lobes, deep reading becomes a form of deep thinking. The mind of the experienced book reader is a calm mind, not a buzzing one. When it comes to the firing of our neurons, it’s a mistake to assume that more is better.
Throughout his book Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives, Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica frequently returns to the theme that when we think negatively about another person, we actually injure them spiritually. Similarly, we can be injured by other people’s antagonistic thoughts about ourselves. The solution to both these problems is simple.
Your thoughts are burdened because you are influenced by the thoughts of your fellow men. Pray to the Lord that He might take this burden from you. These are the thoughts of others which differ from yours. They have their plan, and their plan is to attack you with their thoughts. Instead of letting go, you have allowed yourself to become part of their plan, so of course you suffer. Had you ignored the attack, you would have kept your peace. They could have thought or said anything at all about you, yet you would have remained calm and at peace. Soon all their anger would have died down, like a deflated balloon, because of the pure nad peaceful thoughts that would have come from you. If you are like that, calm and full of love, if all you think are good and kind thoughts, they will stop warring against you in their thoughts and will not threaten you anymore. But if you demand an eye for an eye, that is war. Where there is war there can be no peace. How can there be peace on a battlefield, when everyone is looking over their shoulders and anticipating a surprise attack from the enemy.
In Philip Bess’ work Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture, Urbanism, and the Sacred, he uses a Thomistic-Aristotelian framework (including but not limited to what he calls “my happy participation in and defense of the religious and metaphysical realism of Western culture”) for analyzing architectural trends.
Chapter 2, titled ‘Democracy’s Private Places’, has some interesting observations about city architecture in the post-war era (an era that continues right up to the present day with its architectural folly). One of the hallmarks of this time has been the decline of public buildings and the rise of luxury town homes – specifically, suburban homes intentionally separated from the public life of the city, thus fortifying the notion that the Good Life, whatever else it may be, is essentially a private affair. This deviates from Aristotle’s understanding that a happy society is one in which the members are part of a Common Good that, whatever else it may involve, is essentially civic. Zoning laws that officially separate public from private life (and in the process make the automobile practically indispensable) now force this heretical worldview to be incarnated in the landscape of our cities. Continue reading
The problem of the needle in the haystack is very different to the problem of a haystack made up of needles.
Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, has an interesting post on his blog about the difference between situational overload and ambient overload. Failure to distinguish between these two types of phenomenon has led to great confusion about the nature of information overload.
Situational overload is what we might call the needle-in-the-haystack problem. This kind of overload exists when we can’t find the needle because of all the hay. Carr believes that this kind of overload is not actually a problem in today’s world. The real problem is ambient overload, and it arises precisely from the mechanisms we’ve created to avoid situational overload. As Carr explains:
The sixth-century desert father, Dorotheos of Gaza, gave some very helpful wisdom for emotional people struggling with temptation and/or afflications:
“God does not allow us to be burdened with anything beyond our power of endurance, and therefore, when difficulties come upon us we do not sin unless we are unwilling to endure a little tribulation or to suffer anything unforeseen. As the Apostle says, ‘God is faithful and will not allow us to be tempted beyond what we are able [to endure].’ But we are men who have no patience and no desire for a little labor and [no desire] to brace ourselves to accept anything with humility. Therefore we are crushed ]by our difficulties]. The more we run away from temptations, the more they weigh us down and the less are we able to drive them away. Suppose a man for some reason dives into the sea: if he knows the art of swimming, what does he do when a great wave comes along? He ducks under until it goes past and then he goes on swimming unharmed. But if he is determined to set himself against it, it pushes him away and hurls him back a great distance, and when again he begins to swim forward another wave comes upon him, and if again he tries to swim against it, again it fores him back, and he only tires himself out and makes no headway. But if he ducks his head and lowers himself under the wave, as I said, no harm comes to him and he continues to swim as long as he likes. Those who go on doing their work this way when they are in trouble, putting up with their temptations with patience and humility, come through unharmed. But if they get distressed and downcast, seeking the reasons for everything, tormenting themselves and being annoyed with themselves instead of helping themselves, they do themselves harm.
“If painful experiences crowd in upon us, we ought not to be disturbed; allowing ourselves to be disturbed by these experiences is sheer ignorance and pride because we are not recognizing our own condition and, as the Fathers tell us, we are running away from labor. We make no progress because we have not squarely taken our own measure, we do not persevere in the work we begin, and want to acquire virtue without effort. Why should an emotional man find it strange to be disturbed by his emotions? Why should he be overwhelmed if he sometimes gives way to them? If you have them inside yourself why are you disturbed when they break out? You have their seeds in you and yet you ask, why do they spring up and trouble me? Better to have patience and go on struggling with them and beg for God’s help. It is impossible for someone struggling against his evil desires not to suffer affliction from them.”