Presence, Neurons, and the Internet

Presence, neurons, and the internet: these concepts are intimately related in an unsuspecting and unfavorable way which might concern you, if in your pursuit of authenticity, you practice presence.

Contemplative traditions consider the practice of presence the sine qua non (“without which nothing”) of spiritual unfolding. The Tibetan Dzogchen master, Namkhai Norbu, for example, considers presence to be “the ultimate” practice.

Presence could be considered the unreactive resting of awareness in the experience of the moment-to-moment experience of the Now. Initially the practice of presence requires sustained voluntary attention. Ideally and impossibly, we would be in presence uninterruptedly throughout the day. Yet, unless you are a master, inevitably distractions will interrupt your attention leading you to not be present.

The internet and your neurons relate directly to your capacity to practice presence. To understand how they relate, it’s helpful to know of the relatively new science of neuroplasticity. Perhaps you think, as once I did, that your brain stopped developing when you reached physical maturity. Not so!

Your brain matter changes incessantly. Your ongoing experience, knowledge, and behavior can generate new synaptic connections between neurons, atrophy others, and even create new neurons. Such changes in brain structure can be as immediate as within a second of exposure to a stimulus.

But not all brain matter changes are good. Numerous research studies now report that internet usage actually alters your brain matter in ways which result in a decreased ability to think deeply, to comprehend reading matter, to form long-term memory, and… to sustain focus or attention (just what is required for the practice of presence).

Yes, the internet does have some favorable impacts on brain matter: it enhances visual acuity and eye-hand coordination. While that’s a questionable plus for the advance of civilization, joystick operators of military drone aircraft and their victims may benefit from less civilian “collateral damage”. Additionally governments who benefit from unthinking populaces will be pleased also.

If you wonder why you’re not reading as many books as you used to or you wonder why you find it difficult to read long internet articles, perhaps the net has zapped your brain (and this is reversible). Of course, not just the internet, but all media and sources of distraction augment our increasing inability to sustain attention. If you are interested in learning more about the impact of the internet, read “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” Nicholas Carr (2011).

Of course the internet offers genuine benefits which we will want to balance with our concern for presence. If you wonder how to enhance your practice of presence, perhaps a practical start might be to curb your exposure to distractions by limiting the amount of time you spend surfing the internet and limiting the number of times a day you download email.

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