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One of my favorite memories from college is rambling through campus late at night, when everything was still and the stars and streetlights cast weird shadows across familiar ground. I did my best thinking then, often stopping to scribble down notes for a paper or lines of poetry.
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Of course, being a millenial, I had my cell phone with me … but it wasn’t yet internet-capable. Facebook was still in its infancy, social media was just beginning to emerge, and taking a walk (or even walking to class) necessitated unplugging from the nascent world of technology. I couldn’t help but remember those late nights when I read this post at Open Culture on information overload.
Bar-Ilan University’s Moshe Bar and Shira Baror undertook a study to measure the effects of distraction, or what they call “mental load,” the “stray thoughts” and “obsessive ruminations” that clutter the mind with information and loose ends. Our “capacity for original and creative thinking,” Bar writes at The New York Times, “is markedly stymied” by a busy mind. “The cluttered mind,” writes Jessica Stillman, “is a creativity killer.”
Thinking back, I realized that those memories of late-night walks are skewed a bit by perspective. I remember the campus being quiet, nearly silent, but it couldn’t have been. There were always people out, even in the middle of the night — and even if there weren’t, our university was right next to a major freeway. There was constant traffic, horns, and the onrushing sounds of semi-trucks barreling past.
The silence that I remember wasn’t a physical silence, it was mental. It was the silence of a mind at rest — which, ironically, is why I did my best thinking then.
Of course, some of the mental load I carry now is inescapable — it’s part of mom life. But a lot of the mental clutter is just that: clutter. When I take a break for lunch or a cup of coffee, I pick up my phone and scroll through Facebook or read the headlines. I read interesting articles and click through promising links. I know lots of stuff now, about medieval antibiotics and green children and Prussia’s role in French pro-maternity laws. But all that information is just … information. I don’t do anything with it.
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I also don’t scribble down bits of poetry anymore. I thought I had grown out of it, but maybe that’s not it at all. Maybe those half-poems and lilting rhymes have just been drowned out by too much noise, and too many Wikipedia rabbit-holes.
I’m not saying that the internet is evil. I think I will love Wikipedia until the day I die. But there’s no denying that my creativity plummeted as my time online increased. I miss those times when my mind was quiet and I had room to think.
It’s enough to make me want to be more intentional about my information consumption. It’s silly to pretend that I could unplug completely or throw my phone in the ocean — the internet is too vital for modern life. But scrolling doesn’t have to be mindless. The next time I’m tempted to click on an interesting headline, it’s worth pausing to consider whether I’m clicking through out of boredom and habit or genuine curiosity. And then maybe I’ll put the phone down either way and go for a walk — without it.