Many streams flow into empty river

If you are of a “certain” age and you watch twenty-somethings today, you may be amazed at their seeming ability to multi-task. They may have the television on with a laptop in front of them and a smart phone nearby. They are bombarded with several overlapping streams of information, interaction and input. They read stories on the web, share experiences via social media and watch tv — which itself simultaneously presents news being read, video of events and a crawl of related info across the bottom.

Today’s young people know nothing else. They have been raised amongst the din of over-stimulation. Perhaps paradoxically, research has begun to show that the impact of each stream is less than it would be if it were the only one. Attention spans are becoming shorter. Education is being quietly retuned as a form of entertainment. Just look at any college introductory-level text — it will more closely resemble an Abercrombie and Fitch catalogue than the dusty picture-free tomes their parents read.

Juxtapose all this with an article recently released in Mother Jones written by Michael Mechanic. Titled “What Extreme Isolation Does to Your Mind,” Mechanic recounts a series of experiments done at Montreal’s McGill University in the 1950s. Led by psychologist Donald O. Hebb, researchers placed test subjects in conditions of sensory deprivation and observed their reactions.

Male graduate students were given $20 a day (good pay at the time, notes Mechanic) to stay in very small rooms containing little more than a bed. Peter Milner, one of Hebb’s former graduate students who is now an emeritus psychology professor at McGill, recalled the setup: “It would be a bit more than a meter wide and a couple of meters long, probably enough for a table or something.”

Milner further described the subjects’ living conditions: “They were given food by human beings, and also when they needed to use the washrooms and things they would be escorted there by other human beings. So they weren’t completely alone.” He also described the subjects being led to the restroom wearing frosted-over goggles. “They wore goggles and earphones and [there was] some sort of noise, just white noise, from a loudspeaker,” he said.

According to Hebb’s theories, the brain would begin to deteriorate once robbed of continuous sensory inputs. Hebb hoped to observe his subjects for six weeks. The majority could only stand the conditions for a few days; and none made it a week.

“Most of the subjects had planned to think about their work: Some intended to review their studies, some to plan term papers, and one thought he would organize a lecture he had to deliver,” wrote Woodburn Heron, one of Hebb’s collaborators, in “The Pathology of Boredom,” a 1957 Scientific American article describing the experiments. “Nearly all of them reported that the most striking thing about the experience was that they were unable to think clearly about anything for any length of time and that their thought processes seemed to be affected in other ways.”

These two diametrically opposed situations make us wonder whether the conditions — over-stimulation and under-stimulation — might have more in common than the culture of technological deluge would have us believe. People today can be anesthetized by so many inputs that they lose the capacity for prolonged focus. All information must be broken up into small easily digestible bites because the thrust of uninterrupted flow chokes the recipient. Form and format supplant substance.

Is this fundamentally different from the effects of complete deprivation? Have we raised a generation of people capable of paying attention far better than we ever could; or is it more likely that we have merely invited empty, but endless overlapping content to masquerade as multi-tasked learning?