While we recognize the limitations of any singular blog post’s ability to answer big questions like the ones we’re asking, our intention is not to tell you everything there is to know about this issue, but rather to open up a space for conversation, reflection, curiosity, and a consideration of all the other questions this one question sets in motion.
What are the creative costs of being constantly connected to online environments?
by: Katherine Baxter, Ph.D.
This morning I sat down to write this piece and I immediately felt stuck. I didn’t know where to begin, couldn’t find the right words, and within ten minutes of trying I ended up opening a random series of internet tabs and scrolling through my email aimlessly. Most of the work I do requires writing, which is often creative and sometimes not so much, but it requires a certain amount of focus regardless. And I often feel my mind being pulled away from the task at hand by the seemingly infinite world of information, social updates, cute animal videos, etc that are always just a click away. As the comedian Bo Burnham put it in his recent special, being online seems to present us with this fairly irresistible proposition: “Can I interest you in everything all of the time?” I know I’m not alone in this experience, and so we at American Canary wanted to explore the relationship between being creative and being online, and following my brief reflection, encourage you to reflect on the same.
When I started thinking about this topic, one question immediately came to mind: what are the creative costs of being constantly connected to online environments? With full acknowledgement of my disposition as someone who is highly skeptical and concerned about the societal and inter/intra-personal tolls of our increasingly digital lives, I wanted to explore this question and related topics by reflecting on my own experience and drawing on some relevant research.
There is mounting evidence across the fields of neuroscience and psychology that boredom and uncertainty are essential prerequisites to creativity, and that giving our minds time to wander aimlessly, rather than constantly having a YouTube video or a podcast playing in the background, is incredibly important to having new ideas. The reason for this is thought to be that it activates the part of our brain called the ‘Default Mode Network’, which is defined as a region in the brain that is spontaneously active during passive moments, and that seems to show lower levels of activity when we are engaged in a particular task like paying attention, but higher levels of activity when we are awake and not involved in any specific mental exercise. Neuroscientists believe that this is the part of the brain responsible for creativity and new ideas, and that being constantly online and connected to devices that engage our attention is likely interfering with this part of the brain’s ability to function.
This finding seems fairly obvious when you stop and think about it, but I wonder how often people feel bored, or how often people embrace boredom and sit with it for more than a few minutes before seeking some kind of informational input to capture and direct their attention. Speaking personally, I usually listen to music or a podcast on my morning run to my garden. But the other day my bluetooth headphones died shortly after I left my house. After the initial irritation subsided, I noticed myself having a very different experience of this run than I normally do. Instead of my attention being captured by the sounds and stories coming out of the plugs in my ears, I was immersed in all the sensations of the street – the smell of the flowers, the sound of the construction workers having a laugh, the person smiling at me across the street. My thought process was noticeably different. My mind was wandering and being responsive to my immediate environment, and after this brief break from my devices I felt remarkably refreshed and focused.
The silence and presence that results from being fully offline, and the role it plays in the creative process, is something that could easily be forgotten and neglected, without us ever realizing what we might be losing. Many people confess to feeling unwittingly compelled to distract themselves in each moment, and to noticing a nervous habit in themselves to check their phones every couple minutes, with research estimating that people check their phones 2,617 times a day on average. When we examine this tendency in ourselves, it’s hard to pinpoint what compels this behavior; often it doesn’t even feel like something we are consciously doing, but rather an involuntary impulse we don’t even realize we’ve done until afterwards. But when we remember that these devices and the apps they contain have been designed for exactly this purpose, to capture and keep our attention, it makes more sense. I’ve encountered many people who have expressed that they feel ‘addicted’ to their phones, that the amount of time they spend aimlessly scrolling is getting in the way of their relationships, and that they feel uncomfortable being alone with their own thoughts. So, we mindlessly check our phones, looking for some kind of satisfaction or validation to be found therein. But of course, this craving is never satiated, and I often wonder: to what end is this leading us, both as individuals and as a society?
This ties into another byproduct of being constantly connected: our susceptibility to distraction and an inability to focus. If we consider where ideas come from, how they take shape in the mind, and the necessary conditions to bring them to life, the effects our devices are likely having on our brains become somewhat concerning. I think back to my pre-smart phone days, a line I crossed in 2013 while doing my Masters degree, and I remember feeling much more in possession of my mind, much more able to focus for long periods of time, much less tempted to reach for my phone thoughtlessly to check an app, or to put a Disney movie on in the background while writing an article.
I used to write in my journal for an hour everyday, without interruption. I could finish a book in one sitting. I would go for long walks without headphones in, and I always talked to people on airplanes and at the grocery store checkout. But I’ve noticed a change in the tendencies of my mind, away from a desire for silence and focus and towards a craving for constant noise and perpetual informational input. This is despite being someone who meditates almost every day to curb and counteract this tendency.
And I know I’m not alone in this, which is why I think it’s important to share. Research presented at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association has shown that our digital lives may be making us more distracted, distant, and drained. It’s not hard to see how these three states of being might be taking a toll on our creative energies and capacities. When I feel tired or preoccupied, it feels almost impossible to write a coherent paragraph or have an original thought. I often sit at my computer and spend an hour hoping for something of quality to come out, only to go for a walk to immediately have a eureka moment. At least for me, my creativity and my creative process seem at odds with the conditions in which I work, which generally consists of sitting in front of a screen for hours on end.
This leads to another related topic, which is the social nature of creativity, and the ways in which our interactions and time spent working or socializing online is changing how we relate to ourselves and others. According to the APA, studies have recently shown that those who spend more time on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram demonstrate significantly higher levels of self-centeredness, narcissism, and anxiety than those who do not, and that those who spend more time online also consistently show less empathy and emotional intelligence. Similar studies in psychology have shown that there is no replacement for the stimuli we get from face-to-face interactions, and further that device use actively obstructs and interferes with people’s ability to enjoy in-person experiences. So if being online is amplifying anti-social tendencies amongst users whilst also detracting from quality shared experiences in real life, what might be the ripple effects into how we collaborate and create in social environments?
To conclude, by making this argument about the adverse effects being online may have on being creative, I do not want to undermine people’s agency in choosing how they engage with digital platforms and online spaces, or to make it seem like we are powerless to direct the ways that being connected is shaping our lives. Of course, we can choose to disconnect. We can go offline. We can moderate the amount of time we spend connected to online spaces. And of course, many of us find being online and connected deeply rewarding in a variety of ways. We use it as an opportunity to learn, to listen to our favorite music, or keep up with friends. But there is often a cost associated with going offline, whether social, professional, or otherwise. And it seems worth acknowledging some of the tensions between being creative and being online, and taking time to consider the fact that there are likely unseen neurophysiological costs to our digital lives that we do not fully understand yet. What I do know is that we have some very serious, complex, and difficult challenges to solve as a country and as a planet, and we should think about whether having our minds constantly preoccupied and pacified by being online is going to allow for the creative thinking, the mental fortitude, and the new ideas that will be required to solve them.
All of us at American Canary welcome you to join this conversation and to share your experience and reflections on this issue.
actions to take
Deliberately make time to be fully offline.
Go for a walk without your phone. See how you feel.
Let your mind wander. See where it goes.
Notice your tendency to want to distract yourself. Instead of reaching for a YouTube video or podcast, sit with your boredom.
Set boundaries around your online/social media use.
If you find yourself checking your phone unconsciously more often than you’d like, or scrolling aimlessly rather than engaging with those around you, consider deleting apps or putting your phone in a different room for extended periods of time. See how this changes your relationships with those you care about.
Prioritize your own creativity.
We all have something unique and beautiful to contribute to this world. Try to live your life in a way that will allow you the time, space, and peace to be able to harness and realize your creative potential.
Share your experience with us!
Connect with an AC member for a one on one chat.
questions to consider
Do most workplaces incentivize and prioritize creativity? If not, should they?
What might be some of the benefits of being constantly connected if you work in a creative industry?
Does having the online reaction to your creative work in the back of your mind alter or distort the creative process?
Does creativity require presence of mind? Or, put differently, is one of the consequences of perpetual distraction a lack of creativity?
What are the exclusionary implications of an online ecosystem that favors those creatives who enjoy being online, and who embrace these platforms as an extension of their personal/professional identity?
What about those creatives who don’t feel comfortable being fully online and beholden to the judgement of social media, and who find social media alienating and problematic?