30 Sep

This post is a reflection on a conversation I had with a friend of mine.

There’s a lot of noise out there.

An ear receives a sound wave, which our brain then maps to something in our memory, perhaps a word or a feeling.  Most of the time though, our ears aren’t just receiving one wave at a time.  In fact, I’d wager that our ears are constantly bombarded with waves from different sources (or the superposition of these waves).  As I write this, I’m hearing a professor lecture in a nearby classroom, the gentle taps of my fingers on the keyboard, the faint him of the air conditioning, the occasional shuffling of paper… and the list goes on and on.  Yet despite all of this noise, if someone was to walk up to me and start a conversation, I would be perfectly capable of interpreting their sound.  This is a testament to the design of the way our ears and brain work.  The assumption is that people care most about the loudest signal, so our brain naturally gives the most weight and processing to the loudest sound.

Ideally though, if you’re really trying to focus on understanding a sound, you want to isolate the sound from the noise.  When you go to a symphony, you’re asked to be silent.  When you go to a movie, the only sound is coming from the speakers.  In a lecture, the professor is the only one speaking.  This is so because in order to maximize the ability of our brain to interpret a sound, it needs to be completely focused on just that sound.  Noise disrupts out focus, which weakens the brain’s ability to interpret, and therefore the depth of our understanding of the sound.

So why all this talk about ears and sound?  Well, I’ll get there.  But first, I want to talk about the eyes.

There’s so much to see in the world.  Every moment our eyes are open, our eyes are receiving signals from different wavelengths of light rays, which are interpreted as colors.  These colors are then sent to our brain, which maps clusters of colors to objects we are familiar with.  But unlike sound, we have more control of what our eyes focus on.  Our eyes don’t fixate on the ‘loudest signal’ like our ears do.

Despite this difference, when we really want to understand an object seen by our eyes, we try to isolate that particular object.  The walls around a painting at an art gallery are white.  A movie theater is completely dark except for the screen.  We isolate these objects so that we force ourselves to focus in on the object we’re trying to understand.  Because we have more control of our eyes, we need to exercise discipline to focus on particular objects.  In this way,we are note overwhelmed and are more able to understand what we’re looking at on a deeper level.

In our new technology enabled society, we have access to an infinite amount of information.  This is great.  As Thomas Friedman talked about in his book The World is Flat, the playing field is essentially even for anyone in the world with an internet connection.

While access to this information is beneficial to society in so many ways, it is also detrimental.  With so much information at our fingertips, it’s vey easy to be overwhelmed.  It’s hard to know what information we should care about.  It’s hard to know which information we should spend time processing, and which information we should ignore.

I find that most people are glued to this access to information.  Walking around campus, almost every person is either holding their phone, or has their hand in their pocket ready to pull out their phone in an instant.  In study rooms, classes, and dorm rooms, almost all students have their laptops open.  And even more, they’ll have their e-mail, facebook, twitter, and various other hubs of information open simultaneously, as if they can read e-mails and articles at the same time as looking at the photos from last weekends frat party.  The existence and success of twitter is testament to the belief that we now prefer shorter chunks of information.

We can look at information in the same way we do sound and images above.  There’s so much information being literally ‘pushed’ down to our devices.  How can we focus on the information that matters, and the information that doesn’t matter?  How do we avoid becoming a society of people who know a little bit about a lot, as opposed to a lot about a little?

Perhaps we have to set aside time each day where we can engage in an activity that requires deep analysis uninterrupted.  Or perhaps the need to specialize isn’t as important as it used to be.

The internet is a great asset, but needs to be used wisely.  Stop and think about it when you get a chance.


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