It’s a no-brainer – unfortunately

by Terence MacNamee

German neurobiologist Gerald Hüther, writing in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, and in a recent book, has pointed out that we use our brains and bodies as efficiently as possible, with as little expenditure of energy as possible, so that we get into habits and routines.

From the beginning of the industrial age, machines have helped us save energy by freeing us from laborious tasks. We have, of course, got too comfortable with these labour-saving routines. We get out of physical shape. Then we have to do something like regular exercise, so that we get back in touch with our body and its needs.

The new electronic machines like computers and smartphones make things easy not just for our bodies but for our brains. They act as an artificial memory. And so we get mentally lazy, no longer needing to do sums or remember names or numbers or the like. We are overloaded with information, and our machines help us handle the overload. It’s a no-brainer. Our new machines even fulfil the function of “affect regulation”. That is to say, they help us control our moods by distracting and entertaining us at will.

Hüther warns that we need to get back in touch with our brains to maintain mental flexibility and the ability to innovate, just like we need exercise to put us back in touch with our bodies and keep our muscles in trim.

Years ago, Julian Jaynes pointed out how much of our so-called thinking and consciousness is in fact subconscious. We know a whole lot of things without being aware of them. We go through everyday life like sleepwalkers. Our brains depend on habits and routines for negotiating the familiar. This frees us from the burden of making conscious decisions about every little thing we do.

Jaynes quoted the well-known example of playing the piano. When a person plays, they engage in a complex interaction with that machine, using their two hands to play melody and harmony on the keyboard, depressing the pedals where required, at the same time reading the music from the stand, and being aware of their surroundings. If they became fully conscious of playing or of any component of the performance, they would falter and have to stop.

The transfer of the word “keyboard” to typewriters and later to computers was a hint that operating these machines is a similar activity – another kind of piano playing. We strike the keys to produce letters, not notes; we control our performance by keeping an eye on the screen in front of us, like open sheet music; and the mouse takes the place of the pedals (some people have even come up with mouse pedals).

In days gone by, when there were a lot of amateur piano players, they usually didn’t spend the whole day at the keyboard. The trouble is, we do. It occurs to me that we are playing our piano (the computer or similar device) too much and too long every day.

Now, of course, I am writing this piece on a computer, and you are reading it on a computer or smartphone. Try thinking about the matter when you are away from the screen. I will try too. Hopefully we can both remember what the point at issue was (without being prompted by a display) – and even manage to have some further ideas…