How Twitter Makes You Stupid
Not a Pretty Picture: Your Brain on Twitter
Posted May 15, 2009
Not too long ago, a man by the name of Victor Davich, wrote what has since become one of the best-selling books on meditation. It's called "8 Minute Meditation" and, exactly as it sounds, it's a collection of concentration exercises that are meant to be practiced eight minutes at a time.
I once asked Davich why he chose that particular increment. He said 8 minutes was the time wedged between TV commercials—literally the length of time of an average segment of television.
"Most Americans watch TV," said Davich. "Most of us already know exactly how to pay attention for eight minutes. Combining this with a meditation practice builds on what the brain already knows how to do."
There reason this works, as we so famously know, is because the brain is plastic. Malleable. Built to adapt to environmental changes. Teach it to pay attention for eight minutes one way and it can quickly transfer the skills to another.
But not without consequences.
Think of the fun of shopping. You go out, buy a new sweater, wear it constantly. In your mind you look fabulous-and that feeling lasts about two days.
So what changed?
Not the sweater, not how you looked in it, but how the combination looked to your brain. Two days is about how long it takes a new item (that belongs to a familiar category) to become old—for the new neural nets laid down by the brain to process this novel bit of information to become solidly wired.
Which brings me to Gary Trudeau, the genius-satirist behind the Doonesbury comic, who has lately begun to wage war against Twitter's use by journalists in his strip.
He's also done an interview with Mediabistro on the subject and was generally scathing and uncharacteristically serious, especially when berating reporters for using the social network to come up with interview questions.
"If you and your producer can't think of a few good questions, you and your producer are in the wrong business. It's not about getting fresh, out-of-the-bubble perspectives, as they would argue: most questions sent in are obvious or inane. It's really about flattering the followers, populist pandering."
Elsewhere, Trudeau and others have argued that the 140-word Tweet limit is destroying the English language as enforced brevity quickly becomes celebrated superficiality.
This has prompted something of a backlash. Fox Business correspondent Jon Friedman addressed this concern in a recent article for their website, saying "Yadda, yadda, yadda, Mr. Trudeau. Twitter really isn't doing any harm. We populists who use it have no complaints, either."
Well, unfortunately, Mr. Friedman is wrong on both counts.
The harm being done by Twitter is the harm it's doing to the brain. The average user goes tweet-tweet all day long. This tunes the brain to reading and comprehending information 140 characters at a time.
No one's yet done the research, but I'm willing to bet my lunch-money, that if you take a Twitter-addicted teen and give them a reading comprehension test, their comprehension levels will plunge once they pass the 140 word mark.
And the reason the populists have no complaints is because they don't notice the difference. Expose yourself to constantly short words and trite data over and over again and anything longer or more meaningful becomes slightly harder to process.
Sure, the brain can relearn to handle harder data, but it's not going to happen immediately and not without practice.
Which is to say, there's nothing wrong with Twitter as your main form of social interaction—that is, if you don't mind being stupider because of it.