We're Informed -- But Are We Thoughtful?

I’m a bit of a jerk when I write. I lock myself behind closed doors in my home office. In the summer, I retreat to the most remote reaches of the backyard.

The reason? I don’t want to be interrupted with human contact. If I am interrupted, I stare daggers through the interrupter and answer in short, clipped sentences. The house has to be silent. If conditions are less than ideal, my irritation is palpable.

My family knows this. The warning signal is “Dad is writing.” This can be roughly translated as “Dad is currently an asshole.” The more I try to be thoughtful, the bigger the ass I am.

I suspect Henry David Thoreau was the same.  He went even further than my own backyard exile. He camped out alone for two years in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s cabin on Walden Pond. He said things like, “I never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude.” 

But Thoreau was also a pretty thoughtful guy, who advised us that, “As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.”



But how can we be thoughtful when we are constantly distracted by information? Our mental lives are full of single footsteps. Even if we intend to cover the same path more than once, there are a thousand beeps, alerts, messages, prompts, pokes and flags that are beckoning us to start down a new path, in a different direction. We probably cover more ground, but I suspect we barely disturb the fallen leaves on the paths we take.

I happen to do all my reading on a tablet. I do this for three reasons: First, I always have my entire library with me, and I usually have four books on the go at the same time  (currently "1491," "Reclaiming Conversation," "Flash Boys" and " 50 Places to Bike Before You Die"). Next, I like to read before I go to sleep, and with the tablet I don’t have to use a light, which would keep my wife awake. Third, I like to highlight passages and make notes.

But there’s a trade-off I’ve had to make. I don’t read as thoughtfully as I used to. I can’t “escape” with a book anymore. I am often tempted to check email, play a quick game of 2048 or search for something on Google. Maybe the fact that my attention is always divided among four books is part of the problem. Or maybe it’s that I’m more attention-deficit than I used to be.

There is a big difference between being informed and being thoughtful. Our connected world definitely puts the bias on the importance of information: being connected is all about being informed. But being thoughtful requires us to remove distraction. It’s the deep paths that Thoreau was referring to, and it requires a very different mindset.

Our brains are a single-purpose engine. We can either be informed or be thoughtful. We can’t be both at the same time.

At the University of California, San Francisco, Mattiass Karlsson and Loren Frank found that rats need two very different types of cognitive activity when mastering a maze. When they first explore the maze, certain parts of their brain are active as they’re being “informed” about their new environment. But they don’t master the maze unless they’re allowed downtime to consolidate the information into new, persistent memories. Different parts of the brain are engaged, including the hippocampus. They need time to be thoughtful and create a “deep path.”

In this instance, we’re not all that different from rats. In his research, MIT’s Alex “Sandy” Pentland found that effective teams tend to cycle through two very different phases: First, they explore, gathering new information. Then, just like the thoughtful rats, they engage as a group, digesting and synthesizing that information for future execution.

Pentland found that while both processes are necessary, they don’t exist at the same time: “Exploration and engagement, while both good, don’t easily coexist, because they require that the energy of team members be put to two different uses. Energy is a finite resource.”

Ironically, research is increasingly showing that our previous definitions of cognitive activity may have been off-the-mark. We always assumed that “mind-wandering” or “daydreaming” was a nonproductive activity. But we’re finding out that it’s an essential part of being thoughtful. We’re actually not “wandering” -- it's just the brain’s way of synthesizing and consolidating information. We’re wearing deeper paths in the byways of our mind. 

But a constant flow of new information, delivered through digital channels, keeps us from synthesizing the information we already have. Our brain is too busy being informed to be able to make the switch to thoughtfulness. We don’t have enough cognitive energy to do both.

What price might we pay for being “informed” at the expense of being “thoughtful"?  It seems the price might be significant. Technology distraction in the classroom could lower grades by close to 20%, according to research cited in the journal 
Computers & Education. And you don’t even have to be the one using the device. Just having an open screen in the vicinity might distract you enough to drop your report card from a “B” to a “C.”

Having read this, you now have two choices. You could click off to the next bit of information. Or, you could stare into space for a few minutes and be lost in your thoughts.

Choose wisely.

5 comments about "We're Informed -- But Are We Thoughtful?".
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  1. Michael Elling from IVP Capital, LLC, January 19, 2016 at 12:44 p.m.

    After some staring, let me be the first to compliment you on a well written and thought provoking piece.

    I think it all went downhill with AOL instant messenger and Blackberry; both of which hit in the late 1990s.

    And the app ecosystem sealed the deal.  No cross app or cross platform sharing or knowledge generation or repurposing.

    I think it will begin to change when end-users are given control back and not forced to communicate or process to the lowest common denominator.  

  2. Ken Kurtz from creative license, January 19, 2016 at 12:54 p.m.

    My friends call me a "Luddite." So be it.

    One of my favorite activities as a child in the northern suburbs of Manhattan was going to the library to take out new, interesting books. Today, I am the beneficiary of a brand new library that was recently constructed in the rolling horse farms that surround my current home in the northern suburbs of Atlanta. Many in our hamlet (none of them "Luddites" like me) were OUTRAGED that tax dollars were going toward the construction of a new library, and shared that outrage with their faces in their phones. I just kept quiet in anticipation.

    I went to work for Hearst Magazines in 1981, moved to Washington Post/Newsweek, and then to Time Inc. throughout the ensuant seventeen years when print mattered, and "screens" hadn't yet turned people into "distracted jerks" while diminishing the quality of their writing. Ten years in the "dirt business" (from 1998 through 2008) where the technology was limited to large machines digging up the earth, and engineering services that turned plots of land into neighborhoods, and when I exited that business amidst the credit crunch and real estate implosion of 2008, I'd discovered that digitization had turned nearly everybody in the advertising business into distracted jerks far less capable of true thoughtfulness.

    Alas, I have my nearly empty, beautifully appointed library. The people that stroll in there... thoughtful, indeed and distracted to the minimum. We whisper great thoughts back and forth, and find such face to face engagement truly endearing.

  3. Daniel Heffernan from AdvantageCS, January 19, 2016 at 1:24 p.m.

    Excellent insights into a subject that comes to light every time our adult children come home for a visit. It is more difficult to enter into a deep conversation about a meaningful topic than it was even 5 years ago because of the digital distractions. I think the impact is huge - beyond how we learn, relate, and work. Human beings are being taught to be constantly entertained and to not take the time necessary to do the deep thinking. Our "critical thinking" becomes knee-jerk responses which are more emotional than intelligent. 

    I love what technology can do. I really do. But I fear that the impact of what it does to us as persons will take years to realize. We need some proactive thinking now to keep from becoming less-than-human tomorrow.

  4. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, January 19, 2016 at 4:31 p.m.

    What do you predict what can happen if we keep pace as now 5 years, in 10 years, 20 years with less and less thought going into what we do to ourselves and others ? 

  5. Tom Siebert from BENEVOLENT PROPAGANDA, January 20, 2016 at 10:50 a.m.

    Excellent piece with equally insighful comments. America has always had an anti-intellectual bent, but the capacity for distraction from what actually matters has never been as severe as it is now via social media and sensationalist 24/7 "news," which -- on top of a public education system that indoctrinates memorization over thinking -- have dulled the ability for critical analysis and blurred perceptions on the diffence between "fact" and "opinion." 

    To sit quiety and think or contemplate or meditate is a blessing, but modern society has deigned it a curse, a boredom. "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" may prove a prescient title far different than its author Philip Dick originally imagined. Not sure how we turn back, particularly when the political capital is invested in rule by divisions, unless there is some kind of cosmic wake-up call. 

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