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Mentally Obese? Time for a Digital Diet

Our smart phones are making us stupid.

Have you lost hours upon hours gobbling up endless tidbits of useless information instantaneously provided at the click of a mouse? If you have, you may be suffering from “Mental Obesity” and need a “Digital Diet,” terms coined by West Hartford's David Ryan Polgar, author of Wisdom in the Age of Twitter.

Recently I sat down with Polgar to discuss how this age of information overload is impacting how we think. The bottom line is that all the inane information we ingest on a daily basis is making it harder to concentrate, be reflective, and think critically. In other words, our smart phones are making us stupid.

The term Mental Obesity comes from Polgar's analogy that access to endless information is like overeating. To explain it, Polgar compared the information we have at our fingertips to the game Hungry, Hungry Hippos.

In the game each player operates a plastic hippo. Marbles are released and the hippos try to “eat” as many as possible until they are gone. But what if the marbles never stop?  Would the hippos keep eating until they are obese? Aren’t hippos obese by nature just because they're hippos? Wait, I’ll Google “can hippos become obese?” It turns out they can be obese. They can also run 30 miles an hour and have pink milk. What would cause their milk to be pink? Google “hippos and pink milk....”  

You would think the ability to research anything and everything, with so little effort, would increase our ability to learn but, actually, it does just the opposite. This avalanche of knowledge has made us constantly consume rather than digest information. I have students who can’t begin writing research papers because they can’t stop researching.  They think “the next article will be better” or they get distracted and off track as I did with my hippos. The process of learning has gone from fine dining to fast food. It’s all super-sized and empty calories.

In the film "Race to Nowhere," a teacher characterizes the American education system as “a mile wide and an inch deep.” I can’t imagine this statement came as a surprise to anyone. We communicate through texts, share our lives in 140 characters or less on Twitter, and have “friends” on Facebook we have never met. Shallow doesn’t even begin to cover how students relate to one another. Critical thinking has become collateral damage of the age of information. We have become so scatterbrained, it’s a wonder we can even find our iPads or remember our passwords.

In his book, Polgar offers ways to digitally diet, including focusing on real experiences, working on patience, and getting a hammock. I would add no phones at the dinner table, do something creative, read a real book, and have at least one uninterrupted face to face conversation a day with another human being. Also, get a pet. My dog is a very deep thinker and rarely texts during our conversations.

George January 23, 2013 at 01:17 PM
That includes the long threads of cranky, biased and often inane comments on sites like this... including some of mine.

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