Reclaiming my Brain

Imagine that you’re standing in the center of an crowded room. Turn your head to the left, and a stranger shouts their opinions in your ear. Turn your head to the right, and someone else shouts into your other ear. Now, every time you blink, a fresh bit of information is placed in front of your eyes: A video. A fact. A thought-piece about the government. A tweet. Some guy in New York explaining how interest rates work. Another voice, and another image, and another reaction, until it all becomes a deafening, blinding, roar.

That’s how I feel when I spend time in the “big rooms” of the internet. I’m talking about Twitter of course, but not only Twitter. More broadly I’m referring to the problem of too much stimuli. Even when I keep my visits short, even when I’m super careful, the echoes of what I’ve read and seen ricochet around in my brain for a while after I go offline, coloring my worldview and tweaking my emotions.

Why can’t I just ignore the pieces of feeds that I don’t like? It’s because busy feeds create decision fatigue. When I scroll, I sort content into buckets of like or dislike, read or ignore, a process that happens without me even noticing it. I’ve noticed that as little as 20 minutes in the noise is enough to make my brain feel fatigued. And the more weary I feel, the less likely I am to write fiction that day. And despite these negatives, I return to the busy internet rooms, again and again.

It’s a problem, and I’m working on a solution.

A Different Sort of Walled Garden

You might have heard the term “walled garden” in relationship to the internet. Usually it refers to the way platforms like Facebook lock you into their system by keeping all the content you want inside their proprietary digital walls. But what if I could create a different sort of walled garden, one that exists within my own mind?

I like this notion, because my mind is a lot like a garden. It needs both tending and protection. And isn’t the mind productive when we treat it well? Don’t we nurture our best ideas, giving them time to grow? Conditions matter to the mind, just as they do to a physical garden. What sunshine and compost can do for plants, rest and good nutrition can do for your ability to think clearly. In either case, you let your plot fill with weeds, it’s harder to grow your own stuff.

I’ve come to a point in life where I want to wrap a nice thick wall around my mind, install a bouncer at the gate, and keep the low-quality noise OUT. To talk about quitting one service or another is fine, but what I want is something more important: peace and perspective.

Feeds as Fragility

I wonder: Are noisy content streams incompatible with independent thought? In other words, by crowding out our own thoughts, are we defaulting into a kind of distributed hive mind, losing our own ability to think in the process? I ask because in this time of reactions-as-news it seems increasingly difficult to experience the world through my own eyes, draw independent conclusions, and act upon them. Instead of having the space to experience reality, too often I’m buried under a tsunami of reactivity.

As I’ve been thinking about the relationship between my thoughts, my consumption of low-quality content, and my ability to create good art, I ran across these words from author Jonathan Franzen, a famous Twitter-avoider:

You can miss a meme, and nothing really changes. You can be called fragile, and you will live. “I’m pretty much the opposite of fragile. I don’t need internet engagement to make me vulnerable. Real writing makes me — makes anyone doing it — vulnerable.”

People can think something about you that isn’t true, and it isn’t necessarily your job to correct them. And if you do correct them, the corrections will eat up your entire life, and then where is your life? What did you do? You don’t have to answer criticism of yourself. You don’t even have to listen to it. You don’t have to fit your thoughts into sound bites just because of character limitations.

Has anyone considered that the interaction is the fragility? Has anyone considered that letting other people define how you fill your day and what they fill your head with — a passive, postmodern stream of other people’s thoughts — is the fragility?

People like to hate on Franzen, calling him arrogant for his views, but I appreciate his perspective.

Reclaiming my Brain

I’ve noticed that “my brain on Twitter” doesn’t feel as sharp or as open as the brain I used to possess. It’s become more difficult for me to focus for long periods of time on a single task, and I have a disjointed, almost jittery sensation in my mind that doesn’t always go away when I stay offline. Is Post-Twitter Syndrome a thing?

No matter. Just as it probably doesn’t benefit a gambling addict to spend long hours contemplating the mechanisms of the addicted brain, it may not benefit me to navel-gaze too hard at the nature of noisy internet rooms and the impact they have on our minds. Reclaiming my brain begins with a decision. In my case, I’m ready to retreat into the walled garden for a while. In this period of turning inward, I’m eager to allow my world to become very small, and very quiet. My battered, jittery brain needs some time to heal up, and I think that starts with limiting my inputs.

The best thing about my walled garden is the private space inside, but I’m also very fond of the iron gate built into in the garden wall. There’s a bouncer there (a white rabbit with big muscles), and he’s already shut out my Twitter account, and refused entry to representatives from Reddit and other noisy places. But my iron gate can open, admitting friends (including online friends), books, art, music, and carefully chosen research materials. I’m not going full hermit, in other words, but I am reclaiming my brain, my attention, and my cognitive independence.

It’s only been a week since I put up the wall, and the weeds are already starting to die. I hope that given enough time my Post-Twitter Syndrome will fade, my focus will lengthen, and I’ll have an easier time being creative. But because it’s still early days, all I can tell you is this: It’s quiet here in my garden, and I’m glad I put up that wall!

PS: If you’re stepping away from the “noisy web” too, I’d like to hear about your experience. Comments are open.