Inspiration, concentration and motivation: learning about learning

A few weeks ago I saw a beautiful bird of prey up close. It was resting on a branch two metres from me, staring at me and probably wondering why I was smiling back dorkishly. The experience was amazing, I told a friend. “Why didn’t you put it on facebook?” he responded. His reply struck me because that same day I had read about a very similar situation in a novel: a girl had enjoyed watching birds without posting a message in the social media about it – and was reprimanded for it.

Obviously fiction and yet uncomfortably familiar, the passage came from Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle, chronicling a young woman who joins the most powerful internet company of the world. The book raises questions about the effect of connectedness on our focused mode, a state of concentration without any distraction, as well as memory and the limits of human knowledge in the internet age. It  does so in a very eloquent way:

“It’s not that I’m not social. I’m social enough. But the tools you guys create actually manufacture unnaturally extreme social needs. No one needs the level of contact you’re purveying. It improves nothing. It’s not nourishing. It’s like snack food. (…) Endless empty calories, but the digital-social equivalent. And you calibrate it so it’s equally addictive.” Dave Eggers, The Circle (Vintage Books 2014)

The Circle inspired me to take a break from my favorite social medium for 30 days. Facebook’s digital calories had ceased to be harmless for me, particularly at work. Whenever I was confronted with a ‘cue’, a challenging work tasks, I routinely switched to Facebook to look for distraction. This habit of procrastination gave only temporary pleasure: I felt I was wasting my time and was disappointed in myself for failing to work in a focused mode. The only solution was to break the routine and quit Facebook in order to face work challenges head-on. The reward was improved concentration, finished tasks and a great sense of accomplishment. But the experiment had another reward.

The young woman in Eggers’ novel becomes convinced that she should record all her experiences, like watching birds, online lest she would forget them. All that happens, must be known! In Eggers’ book internet, and in particular the social media, serve as I kind of long-term and publicly accessible memory. It’s a thought-provoking idea, because in this type of storage of memories doesn’t have the filter we carry around in our cortex: online, we don’t have a say in which of our experiences become consolidated by active retrieval of experiences. Reminding experiences without that kind of filter might be less than desirable:

“Did you ever think that perhaps our minds are delicately calibrated between the known and the unknown? That our souls need the mysteries of night and the clarity of day?” Dave Eggers, The Circle (Vintage Books 2014)

Building strong neural structures to remember facts or events is empowering and crucial to enjoy our personal and professional life. Forgetting, however, is equally important: having a memory superseded by something else, discarding information that is in conflict with new learning. I might see a rare bird and by not recording it in a Facebook post, I risk forgetting that experience. Having quit Facebook, I realised that for me forgetting is an essential luxury for a healthy memory.

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