Girl doing critical thinking
She’s doing critical-thinking calisthenics

“Today, unlike thirty years ago, a good ‘now’ is available by just turning off and plugging in. For too many of us, slowing down to examine things is not entertaining, and that’s too bad because it is mandatory we understand the machinery of our lives if we are to modify that machinery to produce the results we want.”

That’s a quote from the Preface of my book, Work The System: The Simple Mechanics of Making More and Working Less. I stand by those words but there’s an equally simple yet deeper physiological reason why so many of us struggle to “slow down to examine things.” It has to do with the physical wiring in our heads. And that’s a problem because if we don’t process input efficiently, our desired life-results won’t materialize.

Let’s start with this premise: The human brain adapts with astounding speed. We all know our thinking adjusts quickly in order to deal with new input but what isn’t widely recognized is that this adaptability goes further: Our brains can quickly adjust the processing protocol itself. Problem is, although it’s an easy thing to do and positive results come quickly, most of us haven’t consciously attempted to rewire our thinking for maximum efficiency. Effort is required.

Following are personal experiences that helped convince me of the rapid adaptability of the brain:

  • Many years ago an accountant friend told me the numeral four should be written with the two upper legs parallel to each other and not the way I was doing it, with the left leg keeled over to join the right leg at the top. He added that he was sure I would never be able to change the habit since I had been doing it the incorrect way all my life. He was wrong. In that very moment I began writing the number four in the correct way and since then have not once done it the old way.
  • Twenty years ago I read an article in a personal finance magazine in which the author said, “If someone is in the habit of bouncing checks they will live their entire life bouncing checks. The proclivity to write a bad check is a hard-wired character issue and can’t be changed.” I was a check-bouncer extraordinaire until undergoing an adjustment in insight ten years ago. I haven’t bounced a check since that moment.
  • One summer morning, at the age of 23, I quit using recreational drugs and never went back.
  • The topic of my book Work the System describes how I instantly changed my life due to a single late-night revelation. In that moment I made an enormous and permanent change in how I process the daily events of my life.

It’s my bet you could add your own examples, minor or major…

Here’s something more in-depth about the rewiring of our neural pathways, the book entitled The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains, by Nicholas Carr. See this excerpt from Wired Magazine.)

Carr makes the point that long hours spent on the Internet will transform our brains into flighty mechanisms that have lost the ability to deep-think. He says, “The current explosion of digital technology not only is changing the way we live and communicate, but is rapidly and profoundly altering our brains.” He goes on to say, “When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain.”

He has a particular beef with hyperlinks: “Navigating linked documents…entails a lot of mental calisthenics—evaluating hyperlinks, deciding whether to click, adjusting to different formats that are extraneous to the process of reading. Because it disrupts concentration, such activity weakens comprehension.”

In all fairness, and Carr points this out, net-surfing promotes adaptability in our thinking process. Although our ability to deep-think is compromised and memory retention is reduced, we become efficient at processing varied input quickly.

Here is the incredibly good news: The rewiring happens very, very quickly. It’s not something that occurs over a period of months or years. The transformation occurs over days or even hours.

And so, beyond the slightly shocking disclosure that we have unwittingly programmed ourselves to be shallow thinkers, here lies the flip-side salvation: It’s my interpretation that since the modification of our brain-wiring happened with astounding speed, the process of reversing that modification can be equally fast. One might indulge a bad thinking habit for years but that doesn’t mean the bad habit took years to develop or will take years to unwind. Indeed, thinking protocol can be changed instantly. For you NLP (Neuro-linguistic programming) practitioners, I know you are nodding your collective heads in agreement.

Carr says, “…people who read linear text comprehend more, remember more, and learn more than those who read text peppered with links.” Discussing what he calls cognitive overload, Carr enlists an analogy to illustrate how our working memory can only download tiny incremental doses of information into our long-term memory. (Think emptying a bathtub with a thimble). In order to develop a richer and deeper thinking process, one must enter information into long-term memory in a slow and orderly way.

So how do we reverse shallow thinking without renouncing our web-habit? Especially by reading books. Spending time with the non-hyper linked written page encourages deep thinking and critical analysis. As I see it, there are also other exercises that will stretch our linear-thinking apparatus. An innocuous example is walking down the street without the iPod plugged in. In general, avoid multitasking. Specifically, take up a “flow” endeavor that requires absolute concentration such as rock climbing or chess. In any case, reading might be the most potent antidote to computer-generated flighty thinking.

Ultimately, it’s a trade-off as we leave the computer to pick up a book: To spend less time preoccupying ourselves short-term in order to spend more time satisfying ourselves long-term.

I try hard to read one hardcover book per week and now realize it hasn’t been simply a luxury, it’s been an inadvertent therapeutic countering of the hours I spend gyrating on the web. In the cognitive sense, reading combined with internet exploration makes thinking both linear and adaptable. In an exercise regimen, it’s much like combining long distance running with weight-lifting in order to gain both resiliency and strength. Contrast the body of the elite long-distance runner with that of the professional body builder. Wouldn’t something in between be superior to one or the other extreme?

Congruent with Carr’s work is another terrific book that discusses our society’s general decline in critical thinking. Read The Dumbest Generation by Mark Bauerlein. No surprise that Bauerlein also lays the blame on the Internet as it delivers an unlimited supply of wasteful entertainment and inane social connection.

It’s true, the Work the System Method requires a linear, critical-thinking mindset. But if one can work through the process patiently, the process itself will naturally render the mindset permanent.
Being able to quickly hone our thinking to be more deliberate and less flighty is a distinct advantage. With so many of our competitors unable to focus and think critically – while wastefully expending huge gobs of time being entertained – our task of being the best in what we do becomes that much easier.

Go ahead. Pick up that book. It’s good for you.


Photo by Kevin Rawlings via Flickr used under a creative Commons License.

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