Today, we are in conversation with Lyn Lesch, author of Intelligence in the Digital Age: How the Search for Something Larger May Be Imperiled.
Lyn Lesch founded and directed his own democratically run school for children ages six to fourteen for twelve years, one that received widespread attention in the Chicago area as a unique approach to education. He has written four books on education reform, all of them emphasizing the importance of what occurs inside a young person while they learn. He has a lifelong interest in pursuing a larger consciousness.
Tell us about yourself
For twelve years I founded and directed a private progressive school for children six to fourteen years of age in suburban Chicago; one which implemented a democratic learning environment that was based on an equilibrium of rights and responsibilities, for both students and teachers alike. That is, students negotiated their own learning plans, had freedom of movement throughout the school day, and even participated in weekly democratic meetings in which certain rules which governed the learning environment, consequences for not adhering to learning plans, and social relationships which had evolved in the school were open for discussion.
The reason why I began the school, and adopted this approach was to focus on the inner life of the child while they learn. In other words, what took place inside someone while they were learning was deemed to be even more important than what someone learned or how well they learned it, although of course, successful learning was still very much a factor.
This focus of mine on the inner life stems largely from a lifelong interest in exploring the possibility of a larger consciousness, one which might exist beyond the boundaries of thought and memory. When I was younger and studying for my teaching license at Indiana University, I came across a book by a man of whom I had never heard. The book was The Awakening of Intelligence by J. Krishnamurti, someone who in his younger days had been deeply involved with the Theosophical Society, but then walked away from them, telling everyone that “truth is a pathless land.”
Reading that book then set in motion an interest of mine in pursuing a larger awareness without the use of a system, philosophy, use of various techniques, etc. That is, I became deeply interested, and am still interested to this day, in seeking a larger intelligence that exists on the other side of one’s thinking mind, one’s memories, or the dynamics of the individual self. So my current book Intelligence in the Digital Age: How the Search for Something Larger May Be Imperiled is very much a result of this interest in exploring the possibility of a larger, more expansive consciousness.
What was the inspiration behind your book? Is this a personal topic for you?
What inspired me to write this book was simply having become familiar with how difficult it is to actually explore the possibility of a larger awareness (i.e. how one must have one’s wits thoroughly about him/her in doing so) I was more than a little taken aback when I began to see some of the damaging effects of our current Internet age on those same dynamics that are necessary to begin that type of exploration, and so I began to explore this idea more completely.
That is when it became obvious that some of the very qualities to which one needed to have full and complete access in order to touch that larger intelligence (those involving thought, attention, memory, and emotive/sensorial life) were being significantly abrogated by our current digital age, particularly after reading Nicholas Carr’s wonderful book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, I decided to put into words my fear that in the future the possibility of pursuing an expansive consciousness would be diminished by how people were using their digital devices.
This topic is of course very personal to me for a couple of reasons. One is that it would bother me tremendously if I thought that what has been most important to me in my own life – the search for a larger intelligence – would be somehow diminished or somehow diluted by future generations. The other reason is my lifelong frustration at being able to find only a handful of people who are either interested in this same search or have any idea of what exactly it entails. So I would hate to see the possibility of that significantly diminished because of what people’s use of digital devices might be doing to their inner lives.
Can you explain what the subtitle – How the Search for Something Larger May Be Imperiled – of the book means.
Quite simply, the subtitle of the book is really what it is all about. That is, how the search for a larger intelligence is being significantly endangered by how people’s use of digital devices in our current cyber age may be affecting their stream of thought, memory, attention, and emotive life, qualities to which one must first have full access in order to explore both their limitations and also the possibility of a larger awareness that might exist on the other side of them.
In fact, this is the real irony of our present digital age in relation to the pursuit of a more expansive consciousness. That is, before one can explore the possibility of that occurring on the other side of thought and memory, one must first have full access to one’s thoughts and memories, one’s capacity to attend, and to the potential depth of one’s emotive/sensorial life.
However, as the digital age proceeds, there is increasing evidence that the stream of people’s thoughts is becoming more fragmented and distracted by the amount of information (much of it unrelated) that people are being asked to assimilate in their short-term memory before they can pass it on to their long-term memory. Also, as we increasingly outsource our memories to large search engines, rather than attempt to pull facts and information from our own working memories, the neuronal networks of our brains are in danger of calcifying due to lack of use.
As our working memories are being overwhelmed in our digital world by information overload, our long-term memory is less able to selectively attend to the elements of our world by sorting our relevant from irrelevant facts and knowledge. Finally, as a result of looking at virtual images on a plastic screen so much of the time, our emotive/sensorial life is being dulled simply because those same virtual images will never have the same power or depth as real-world experiences. And so, over time, our emotive life is being conditioned to become shallower.
What impact do you think the onslaught of digital information is having on our thought processes?
When too much information is coming at someone too quickly, their short-term memory, which has a limited storage capacity, becomes overwhelmed to the point where it becomes extremely difficult for it to take in and store more information. Consequently, when that occurs, our short-term memories grow less able to pass information to our long-term memories, which can then effectively store that information and use it to conceptualize and think effectively about the different elements of one’s world.
In addition, the spatial map of our world, an internal representation of our external environment that is stored in the brain, one which aids us in focusing our attention on the details of our world by allowing us to formulate an internalized picture of it, and which is dependent upon the assimilation of long-term memories, can grow less clear and less accessible. It is also what allows us to selectively attend to important elements of our world while blocking out irrelevant ones. So ultimately, our capacity to learn is affected when we can no longer focus clearly on the information and knowledge that is important for us to absorb.
So ultimately information overload can, at one and the same time, negatively affect both short and long-term memories, our capacity to internalize our world, our ability to separate important pieces of knowledge and information from irrelevant ones by clearly attending to them, and ultimately our capacity to effectively conceptualized our world and learn from it.
Can the damage be reversed? How?
What seems most important when dealing with information overload is that one makes a point of impeding the constant stream of information which might become overwhelming to the point where one is able to think less clearly This someone can do by simply making a point of stopping and taking a moment to think about whatever bit of information one has just assimilated before moving on the next one on one’s phone or PC. This can serve two important purposes.
One is that it allows one’s mind to clearly digest whatever information or knowledge one has just assimilated so that it can be more effectively stored in one’s working memory, and so then has a better chance of becoming part of one’s long-term memory, where the endless amount of information on the Web can no longer overwhelm it.
Secondly, if one takes the time to clearly digest whatever piece of information one has just apprehended, it can then be more effectively placed in context along with other information and knowledge that is relevant to it. Consequently, it has much less chance of being overwhelmed and ultimately washed away by the endless glut of information which is soon to follow.
So one truly effective way of reversing the damage brought on by information overload is to simply stop and carefully consider within one’s own mind, and not on one’s digital device, each piece of information coming at one from the cyber world before moving on to the next bit of information on the Web.
Why should I read traditional books when e-books are more convenient and eco-friendly?
Although this is still a matter of scientific investigation, some recent studies, those pertaining to both reading and learning, have speculated that when one is physically connected in an embodied manner to whatever information or knowledge one is connecting, that information or knowledge becomes absorbed more completely. In other words, it is the actual physical contact which allows for a greater degree of absorption.
Therefore, relative to bound books vs. e-books, the act of actually holding the book in one’s hand might well lead to more complete absorption in whatever one is reading simply because it is embodied and physical in nature.
Also, when one reads using an e-reader, it becomes more difficult to place whatever page, storyline, or bit of knowledge one is apprehending at the moment in the context of the entire book simply because one no longer has full access to the whole of the book in its physical incantation. That is, one can’t immediately access either the size of the book or have contact as easily with how far one has journeyed in arriving at the page which one is currently reading. In other words, when one reads a bound book rather than an e-book the context of whatever one is reading in the moment can become immediately more accessible and thus more meaningful.
Some people have a constant, never-ending stream of thoughts and can find this quite overwhelming. Why is their mind that way?
Essentially, people don’t realize the limitations of thought; where it is something productive and where it only creates conflict, division, and fragmentation. Thought of course can solve difficult technical problems, produce brilliant creative art, or simply conceptualize important aspects of one’s life when one is able to holistically follow its stream.
The problem, however, comes in when thought attempts to produce some sort of predetermined result that will provide one with a security that doesn’t exist in one’s life, free one from their fears, or solve difficult questions involving one’s personal relationships. In these situations, because the thinker and the thought are one and the same, one only ends up in effect chasing one’s own tail in coming up with solutions that will free them from their fear, give them inevitable security, or provide ready answers to the conflicts one might have with other people.
Because thought can’t provide answers to those issues, it then becomes a circular process where one inevitably follows it into the same dead-end corners and endless loops in one’s mind, never being able to turn off thought’s endless stream. On the other hand, when one is able to directly see that is what is occurring, then over time one’s mind grows quieter simply because one can directly see the limitations of thought, and so begins to not follow it over and over into the same dead ends and circular loops in one’s mind, looking for answers that don’t exist within thought’s limitations.
Is there any way to harness the power of your constant stream of thought?
A more important question, I think, is how one might harness the power of direct insight, something that exists beyond the boundaries of thought and where one is able to experience that aha moment of pure insight where one can in the moment directly see creative answers to questions with which one has been struggling, solutions to difficulties in one’s life, or the immediate apprehension of different aspects of the world in which one lives.
However, one can’t possibly think one’s way into moments of direct insight. They come only when one is able to pay complete attention to different elements of one’s world or one’s self when the stream of thought is no longer blocking that apprehension. They tend to occur in what has been described as a state of flow (or of being in the zone) where the interests of the observer and the level of complexity inherent in the dynamics of what one is attempting to observe are matched with each other.
On the other hand, if one attempts to harness or control the stream of thought as a way to make sense of one’s world, that nearly always creates conflict and division in oneself simply because the thinker and the thought are actually one. So if one attempts to harness the stream of one’s thoughts, one is actually attempting to control something of which one is, in fact, the very originator.
How to silence the persistent voice in your mind that distracts you from the task at hand.
In George Dennison’s wonderful book about education, The Lives of Children, which concerned his experiences teaching at a progressive school for children in their formative years in lower Manhattan during the 1960s, there is a great idea expressed there, one which is not only applicable to effectively and humanely teaching children but also has to do with dealing with a persistent voice in one’s mind which can be distracting.
The idea, as Dennison puts it, is to lose time. Relative to teaching children, that means that when something significant (i.e. problems, issues, etc.) comes up during the course of a lesson, or really during any educational activity, one is best served to temporarily stop the lesson or activity and give full attention to the unexpected problem or issue which has come up. As one does so, it will no longer be in conflict in that moment with whatever one is attempting to teach.
It would seem the same thing may well be true for any type of persistent voice that is distracting one from focusing on the task at hand in which one is engaged. That is, temporarily stop focusing on the task and give one’s full attention to the dynamics of that persistent voice. Why is it there? What might it have to do with the task one is pursuing? What might the little voice have to with unresolved conflicts within oneself?
By stopping whatever one is doing and giving one’s full attention to the dynamics of that persistent little voice, one might then not leave any unresolved issues on the table, so to speak. Consequently, it would seem, one has a better chance of focusing completely on the task which is at hand when one returns to it.
Are there any physical/mental exercise you recommend to people to strengthen their focus and memory?
In terms of memory, when you have temporarily forgotten some fact or piece of information, try to retrace the pathways in your mind which lead toward it rather than just fish it out of Google or some other search engine. That way you will be strengthening those pathways to it and consequently, your working memory can improve simply because those same pathways haven’t disappeared due to lack of use.
Also, take time now and then to examine the nature of your memories. That is, what transitory things they are, those which can be changed every time we remember something, and in so doing actually change the memory. This can aid you in sorting out what is in fact real concerning the memory from that which your thinking mind has changed over time.
As far as strengthening one’s focus, try to stop and take time to fully digest each bit of information that comes at you on the Web before moving on to other information. That way your short-term memory won’t become overwhelmed to the point where you can’t effectively pass facts, information, and knowledge on to your long-term memory, which is what allows us to more clearly focus on the details of our world by sorting out relevant information from that which is irrelevant.
Also, when you have troubling remembrances enter your psyche, don’t just grab your phone as a virtual pacifier of sorts. Instead, take time to follow those troubling thoughts or remembrances in order to see where they might lead. As a result, your overall focus relative to both your self and your interactions with the world can become strengthened.