Last Christmas, my husband gave me Pixar’s animated feature UP. “You remind me of Ellie,” he said. “And I want us to grow old together.” I actually felt tears in my eyes.
But I secretly feel like Dug the golden retriever, uber-geek among alpha dogs. He tells grouchy Carl, “My name is Dug. I have just met you and I love you.”
Dug talks incessantly, except when distracted. And he’s easily distracted: “My master made me this collar. He is a good and smart master and he made me this collar so that I may talk – SQUIRREL!!”
Dug stares transfixed at a tree. But it’s a false alarm.
Recently I went down like a ton of bricks—a chronic pain syndrome that renders me useless from time to time.
After several days, I dragged myself to the computer and checked my email. Then I just sat there. Twitter? Facebook? One of the 40-some blogs I follow? (How do people follow hundreds?)
The screen blurred. My fingers twitched. I felt unfocused and distracted and hadn’t even opened a web browser.
I’d put it down to illness, except this wasn’t the first time. And it’s become more pronounced recently, since I started blogging and following so many blogs. I felt like Dug, when Russell the Boy Scout adjusted his collar:
Hey would you-
-cuerdo con tigo-
I use that collar-
-watashi wa hanashi ma-
-to talk with, I would be happy if you stopped.
Inspired by Jennifer Louden, I decided to take a digital sabbatical. My conditions of enoughness:
- Abstain from Facebook, Twitter and blogs
- Answer personal email only, once each evening
- Do something creative that doesn’t involve a computer or a skillet
The universe said YES! As my pain subsided, I got the mother of all bladder infections. It lasted over a week. (On my list of liquids to avoid, I now rank unsweetened cranberry juice just above antifreeze.)
But at least it gave me time to reread Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?” in the bathroom.
Yup, the bathroom library still holds that 2008 issue of The Atlantic. I reread it now and then for reassurance, though I seldom get past paragraph two:
Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain . . . I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. . . Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text.
This time it didn’t work. I didn’t need to empathize. I needed to know why my brain feels like a shelf specimen in the lab of Young Frankenstein.
If Carr knows, he never tells. Amid dazzling descriptions of brain-altering technologies (clock, printing press, typewriter, TV), he quotes only one neuroscientist, who observes that the brain “is very plastic.”
But plasticity goes both ways. If the Internet makes the brain less attentive, what makes it more focused?
You might say spiritual or physical discipline, such as yoga, meditation, running. They help, but only if you struggle with them.
And that’s true of everything. Why?
According to author Daniel Coyle, it all comes down to myelin, the grayish matter that protects neurons.
Myelin creates mastery in anything through a process Coyle calls “deep practice.”
In The Talent Code, Coyle explains how an “electric signal traveling through a chain of neurons—a circuit of nerve fibers” creates everything we do. And like all things electrical, insulation affects performance. For neurons, myelin is that insulation.
Deep practice involves teaching circuits to fire optimally by making mistakes and correcting them. The repeated firing causes more protective myelin to develop. Think of weightlifting, where micro tears in the muscle make you stronger.
“The more we fire a particular circuit, the more myelin optimizes that circuit, and the stronger, faster, and more fluent our movements and thoughts become.”
But around age 50, we start losing myelin. It literally starts to split apart—unless we do something about it.
According to Dr. George Bartzokis, UCLA neuropsychiatrist:
This is why every old person you’ve ever met in your life moves more slowly than they did when they were younger. Their muscles haven’t changed, but the speed of the impulses they can send to them has changed, because the myelin gets old.
(Well, that explains everything. I just turned 51. I’m imagining flakes of myelin fluttering from my ears like Autumn leaves.)
But myelin is alive (!) and we can rebuild it. It just takes going much deeper, more often. If you’ve ever dreamed of becoming a chess master, a samba dancer, a jazz sax player or anything you consider a reach—don’t wait.
A few days ago, my husband called from work. “Your birthday present finally arrived.” It’d been backordered for a month.
I went quiet, wondering how this new gadget would factor into my digital dilemma.
“Aren’t you excited? Should I send it back?”
Don’t you dare, honey! He got me a little Kindle 3G and as it turns out, I adore it. It fits in my purse. I’m never without something to read, which turns my commute into a quest (I went carless a few months back, so I mainly bus it).
Kindle will never replace my printed books. It’s simply an amazing conduit that connects me to literature when I’m packing light.
The next afternoon I took the bus to the Beverly Hills Library with four pounds of overdue (from not being able to sit and read for any length of time) books, then walked to work through a garden that no one really notices because it flanks one of L.A.’s nastiest commuter corridors.
Strolling past the roses and succulents and herbs, I pondered Jennifer Louden’s reasons for taking a digital sabbatical. Mainly, she wanted to stop distracting herself from a terrifying new idea and go deeper.
And I thought, “Wouldn’t it be brilliant to take the bus to the Library a few days a week, write for an hour or so, then walk to work?”
Then it hit me.
I didn’t just want to write, I wanted to write a huge, sprawling historical novel.
There’s this story that haunts me. I wrote it as a screenplay several years back, entered it in a few contests, got some interest (one of the judges contacted me). But it never satisfied me, because it’s not a two-hour feature. I’ve been avoiding it because it’s exciting and scary and bigger than anything I’ve ever done.
And this blog is another diversion.
On the Autumn Equinox, I created an altar. It contains, among other things, part of my childhood rock collection, my mentor’s last book (which I spent a year bringing to fruition after she died) and my laptop. The first two symbolize times I’ve been wholly engaged.
I take the laptop from my altar on the days I go to the Library to work on my novel. For me, ritual works better than routine.
Late bloomers, especially, tend toward multiple passions—which makes the blogosphere extremely seductive. We need the struggle of a deep practice to balance all that information overload.
Blogging itself isn’t a deep practice. But it can point you there, even if you’re not an aspiring writer. Blogging lets you explore ideas that excite you, synthesize your thoughts and move toward transformation. Seasoned bloggers know this. But as a newbie with flakey myelin, I needed a digital sabbatical to figure it out.
Blogging is also a bit like Dug’s collar, which didn’t actually give Dug a voice. He already had a one. (“Oh I can bark!”)
It did give him an amazing conduit for connecting with his people.
A recent study has shown that once you’re aware of how deep practice creates myelin, it actually grows faster. That’s a bit creepy, but—
Wait a second.
Our cats, Puck and Leto, have spotted something outside the window. . .
Oh look, it’s a hummingbird!
Artwork: A Lady with a Squirrel [!] and a Starling by Hans Holbein the Younger (about 1526-8)