(Note: This post originally appeared on the now-defunct Breaking the Digital Spell website by contributor Brendon Scoggin.)
What does it mean to be human?
It is a question that has perplexed the deepest of thinkers through the ages. Unfortunately, it is a question the church has often answered incorrectly. To be human is to be a unitary being made up of body and soul. We are material and we are immaterial, and yet these two aspects of our existence are inextricably linked, because we are embodied creatures. This means Christians must care for both the body and the soul, for both are essential to God-glorifying lives.
Platonic philosophy has crept into the church, meaning many Christians abhor their bodies and view them as the ultimate source of sin and weakness. Just consider the many joking conversations you’ve had with Christians about being “well-rounded.” Contrary to popular belief, the Bible encourages Christians to care for the body. It is a temple of the Holy Spirit and a vessel to be used for God’s good purposes. This involves far more than a better diet and exercise. Scientific research is quickly learning that our behaviors also effect the performance of our brains.
What Is Neuroplasticity?
In recent years, studies have shown that the human brain functions with remarkable plasticity. Scientists had previously concluded that the brain had fully developed by the time one entered his/her twenties, but now it has been discovered that the brain continues to change throughout all of life. New brain scanning technologies reveal that experience, behavior and even injury alter the way regions of our brain function. This has been labeled as neuroplasticity, which is properly defined as:
The capacity for continuous alteration of the neural pathways and synapses of the living brain and nervous system in response to experience or injury.
Neuroplasticity has great consequence with the rise of the digital age. In his book The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, Nicholas Carr outlines many research-backed concerns of neuroplasticity in relation to modern technology:
“…media aren’t just channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the net distributes it; in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains
What Carr is pointing out is that the internet is shaping the physical structure of our brains, and that our ability to focus and concentrate on deep and meaningful ideas is significantly decreasing.
The struggle to focus is an age-old problem, and digital technology must not solely receive the blame. Go and read what the 15th and 16th century Puritans had to say about distraction and you will think they are writing to our digitally saturated age. Christians must remember that the problem of distraction is one of the heart. But the heart propels us to action, and those actions are committed by and in the body, which then have consequences for the body. Because the body and the soul are inextricably linked, those consequences for the body always impact the soul. Christians must be aware of how the treatment of our bodies may affect our loving God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength. Technology is proving to shallow our ability to focus deeply, which must concern Christians for at least three reasons.
Christians must think deeply
Romans 12:1-2 shows us the connection between our bodies and our minds:
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”Romans 12:1-2
We are called to present our bodies as a sacrifice to God. In doing so, we are to be transformed by the renewal of our minds. How does that happen? We must, “set our minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2 ESV). In other words, we are to meditate deeply on the things of God. Christians must be cautious about over indulging in anything that may diminish our ability to focus and meditate on God and his Word. If the consumption of technology is affecting our focus, then we must be wise and regularly lay aside our digital devices to set our minds on the, “depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God” (Rom. 11:33 ESV).
Christians must read and comprehend
Building on the first point, our focus is primarily placed upon written words. God has chosen to reveal himself to us, not through images, but through words. This is problematic because digital technology is making a beeline to convey truth primarily through images rather than words.
Upon a recent visit to Taiwan, I was shocked to discover that young people no longer use words in their text message communications. Conversations are carried out over digital devices solely through the exchange of various emoji and avatar like figures. Words are not present.
Studies in neuroplasticity reveal that our interaction with digital technology is rewiring our ability to read and comprehend. In an insightful article in The New York Times, David Brooks compiles research that compares what he calls “fluid intelligence” with “crystallized intelligence.”
Fluid intelligence develops as a result of online digital activity. Brooks writes:
This mode of interaction nurtures mental agility. The ease of movement on the web encourages you to skim ahead and get the gist. You do well in social media and interactive gaming when you can engage and then disengage quickly. This fast, frictionless world rewards the speedy perception, the instant evaluation, and the clever performance. [Heavy technology consumers] have a great capacity for short-term memory, to process multiple objects simultaneously, to switch flexibly between tasks and to quickly process rapidly presented information.David Brooks, “Building Attention Span”
Brooks contrasts this with “crystallized intelligence.” He writes:
Research at the University of Oslo and elsewhere suggests that people read a printed page differently than they read off a screen. They are more linear, more intentional, less likely to multitask or browse for keywords. The slowness of solitary reading or thinking means you are not as concerned with each individual piece of data. You’re more concerned with how different pieces of data fit together. How does this relate to that? You’re concerned with the narrative shape, the synthesizing theory or the overall context. You have time to see how one thing layers onto another, producing mixed emotions, ironies and paradoxes. You have time to lose yourself in another’s complex environment.David Brooks, “Building Attention Span”
Though both types of intelligence have their merits, for the Christian, the latter is absolutely essential. Habits formed by overuse of technology directly impact the believer’s ability to read and consume Scripture. The loss of an ability to read deeply is a serious matter for Christians.
Christians are people of the book. The Bible is literature, and the ability to deal properly with such writing is exactly what the brain is being transformed to resist. If Christians desire to continue to be people of the book who care deeply about not only understanding it rightly, but also being transformed by it, then we must put major controls on technology consumption.
Rather than picking up a screen, pick up a book. Read a novel, a biography, or whatever suits one’s interest. Get a real book that is printed on paper. Studies indicate printed books develop the functions of the brain that technology is dissipating. Technology can be useful, but it must be limited. Knowledge of God is at stake.
Believe me, I understand the irony in the fact that you are reading this blog on a screen. You don’t have to eliminate your interaction with technology entirely, but you must pursue balance. Your brain needs you to spend extended times away from digital platforms to chew on words printed on paper with real ink. It will feed your soul.
Christians must memorize
Studies indicate that the Internet is massively altering human memory. Transactive memory occurs when a group possesses collective information in such a way that the individual relies on the group to store pieces of data that, when needed, can be complied to complete the memory. This is a form of memory that removes the need for an individual to store larger amounts of information long-term.
Numerous studies reveal that the Internet has become a substitute for the group, so that individuals who are connected to the Internet no longer store information in their own long-term memory. Essentially, knowing one can obtain information from the Internet at anytime removes the need to possess that information within ones own brain. Due to neuroplasticity, these patterns of brain activity affect one’s ability to store memory long-term on a biological level.
Once again, these findings have important implications for Christians. Believers are called to, “store up the Word of God” in our hearts (Ps. 119). There is something significant and crucial about remembering the Word of God in the brain, not just having it available in the pocket. Scripture memorization and meditation are both critical spiritual disciplines that are being made more difficult by the changes the brain undergoes through constant exposure to technology.
Sanctification and Digital Technology
Neuroplasticity and much of the developing research on the brain squares remarkably with the Christian doctrine of sanctification. Acts lead to habits, and habits lead to character. The more one sins by lacking self-control, the more sinful that person becomes. Sin always goes in a negative direction, and the consequences can be both spiritual and physical. Lacking self-control with technology can alter the brain to struggle more with technology. It quickly becomes a destructive plunge. However, just as the brain can be changed for the worse, it can also be changed for the better.
Christians who have been justified before God and indwelled with the Holy Spirit can, by the power of the Spirit, make changes that have real physical consequences. Self-control with technology will certainly not justify anyone before God, but it will aid one who is humbly seeking to work out his salvation with fear and trembling before God.
The deeper one goes into technology, the less deep he will be able to go into the Word. Christians would do well to fix our eyes on the backlight of screens less in exchange for seeing and savoring the glorious light that shines from above; a glory revealed in a beautiful book.