How do you start your writing day?
If you’re like most people, you might begin by firing up your computer and hopping onto the Internet. Your purpose may range from interacting on your social media feeds to reading the news to conducting research for a writing project.
Sounds innocuous enough, right?
According to recent studies, maybe not. Researchers have found that the Internet can actually cause changes in the brain that negatively affect memory, cognition, attention, concentration, and more.
Which suggests that signing on first thing in the morning may be about the worst thing you can do as a writer.
Why Writers Should Avoid the Internet First Thing in the Morning
The study was published this past summer (2019), and was entitled, “The online brain: how the Internet may be changing our cognition.”
Authors Joseph Firth and colleagues wanted to examine how our use of the Internet may be affecting our brains. Results showed that the Internet can produce “both acute and sustained alterations [changes]” in each of the areas of cognition examined, including:
- Social cognition (including self-concept and self-esteem)
Such changes, the researchers believed, reflected actual changes in the brain itself, affecting how we function in our day-to-day lives.
“The key findings of this report,” stated lead author Dr Joseph Firth, “are that high-levels of Internet use could indeed impact on many functions of the brain. For example, the limitless stream of prompts and notifications from the Internet encourages us towards constantly holding a divided attention—which then in turn may decrease our capacity for maintaining concentration on a single task.”
Some of the more specific effects included:
- The Internet encourages us to “multi-task” and regularly switch our attention from one task to another, hindering our ability to remain focused on one project for any length of time. This results in worse performance on cognitive or “thinking” tasks.
- High levels of Internet usage and heavy media multi-tasking (switching from one window or screen to another) were associated with decreased gray matter in the prefrontal regions of the brain associated with maintaining goals in the face of distraction.
- Even short-term engagement with an extensively hyperlinked online environment (like going online shopping for 15 minutes) reduced a person’s ability to sustain attention after getting offline, whereas reading a magazine didn’t produce these deficits.
- The availability of information on the Internet allows us to forego any sort of memory development or retention, since we have such rapid access to online factual information all the time. One study showed that after just six days of Internet searching reduced connectivity of brain areas involved in long-term memory formation and retrieval.
The results weren’t all bad. The researchers did find that particularly for older adults, the Internet could prove helpful, particularly in stimulating the brain and staving off age-related cognitive decline.
Since the Internet has been around for less than 30 years, we still remain unaware of what its long-term effects may be. Meanwhile, we are all guinea pigs in a giant experiment, with the researchers concluding, “For better or for worse, we are already conducting a mass‐scale experiment of extensive Internet usage across the global population.”
5 Activities that Power Up Your Brain for Writing
If there’s one thing writers need to be successful, it’s the ability to focus. The debate goes on about how the Internet is affecting our memory and whether that is a good or bad thing, but there’s little doubt that how it affects our ability to concentrate is hurting us when it comes to writing.
In 2015, Time magazine reported on a study from Microsoft Corp. which found that the average attention span of a goldfish is nine seconds, while today’s humans “generally lose concentration after eight seconds, highlighting the affects of an increasingly digitalized lifestyle on the brain.”
That means that starting your day on the Internet is probably setting you up for a day of distraction and multi-tasking—both non-conducive to immersive, concentrated writing. Getting on social media first thing, in particular, gives you that immediate hit of dopamine that “likes” and other interactions cause, leading to more cravings for subsequent hits, which are likely to keep you going back to your phone for more.
You can compare this to eating donuts first thing in the morning. Giving yourself a sugar/fat hit early on sets the stage for junk food cravings later in the day day. Eating a healthy breakfast, on the other hand, helps you make healthier choices for your subsequent meals.
Think about your brain in a similar way. Hopping on the Internet first thing in the morning—particularly if you’re still a little sleepy and your brain is particularly suggestive—is like feeding your brain junk food. You’re creating a pattern that will increase your likelihood of being distracted more throughout the day.
To enjoy a productive, writing day, try engaging in one of the following five activities first thing instead, before you pop open your browser.
1. Read a poem.
Reading poetry is good for the brain in general, and particularly good for a writer’s brain. Even if you don’t write poetry, reading it revs up your brain’s awareness of wordplay, double meanings, and emotions in phrases.
Researchers published in 2013 showed that our brains respond similarly to music and poetry, with both activating similar emotional centers in the brain and triggering introspection.
Poems also require us to think. Unlike the way skimming an article on the Internet tends to penetrate only the surface level of our cognitive abilities, poems dive deep, activating all the mental powers we want to bring to our stories.
2. Read a book.
Reading literature makes us smarter, according to research. It encourages “deep reading,” which is slow, immersive, and rich in sensory detail and emotional complexity—the type of reading we’re much more likely to do when immersed in a novel than when skimming a blog post.
“Although deep reading does not, strictly speaking, require a conventional book,” writes Annie Murphy Paul for Time magazine, “the built-in limits of the printed page are uniquely conducive to the deep reading experience. A book’s lack of hyperlinks, for example, frees the reader from making decisions — Should I click on this link or not? — allowing her to remain fully immersed in the narrative.”
Putting ourselves in characters’ shoes, forming a mental picture of the setting, and following the plot all require effort on the brain’s part. In a 2018 meta-analysis, scientists found that people retain and comprehend more of what they’re reading when they read on paper instead of on digital devices.
So choose a good book to read first thing in the morning before you turn on the computer. You may be surprised at how much it benefits your thinking later in the day—and your writing.
3. Meditate—even if it’s for only 10 minutes.
You’ve probably heard about all the brain-boosting benefits of meditation (reduces stress, promotes relaxation, lengthens attention span, controls anxiety, etc.). Maybe you’ve even tried it but then failed to maintain a regular practice.
You may want to try again, particularly if you wake up with your mind racing. Meditation works in ways that no other activity does to help calm your brain and increase all the skills you need for writing (attention, focus, concentration, creativity).
One of the best things a regular meditation practice does for you is help you to defeat the attention-destroying affects the Internet. With meditation, you must concentrate on one thing and allow other thoughts to come and go. Regular practice can improve your ability to concentrate on your story in the same way.
To make it simple, wake up just 10 minutes earlier, sit down in a comfortable place and light a candle. Set the flame in front of you, set the timer for 10 minutes, and simply stare into the flame. Let the light burn an image behind your eyes. Close your eyes eventually if you want to. Focus on your breath. Let your thoughts come and go and keep bringing your attention back to the flame or the glowing image of it behind your closed eyes.
When your time is up, see how you feel.
4. Make a gratitude list.
Studies show that when we take time to list what we’re grateful for, we not only feel better about our lives, but our brains work better too. In one study from Berkeley, researchers learned from brain imaging scans that when people felt more grateful, their brain activity was distinctly different, showing more activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, which is associated with learning and decision-making.
This one is super easy to do. Soon after you get up, grab a notebook and list five things you’re grateful for in that moment. Repeat every morning and you may notice both mental and emotional benefits, along with a more positive attitude toward your writing.
5. Take 5 minutes to write down your dreams/thoughts.
One of the best ways to boost your creativity is to take advantage of those times when your editor is turned off. First thing in the morning, before your fully awake, is one of those times.
Scientists call it “hypnagogia.” You can read more about it in our other post (“How Writers Can Get More Creative with Hypnagogia”). It’s the state between wakefulness and sleep when you’re likely to get your most creative insights.
So before your waking mind fully takes over, grab a notebook and write down any thoughts that occur to you while you’re still in bed. It may be a recounting of a dream, or if you don’t remember any dreams, simply write down any thoughts that occur to you.
If you do this regularly, you may even find yourself remembering more dreams or coming up with “aha” solutions to your writing dilemmas on a regular basis.
Do you avoid the Internet first thing in the morning?
Carr, N. (2008, July). Is Google Making Us Stupid? Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/306868/
Delgado, P., Vargas, C., Ackerman, R., & Salmerón, L. (2018). Don’t throw away your printed books: A meta-analysis on the effects of reading media on reading comprehension. Educational Research Review, 25, 23-38. doi:10.1016/j.edurev.2018.09.003
Firth, J., Torous, J., Stubbs, B., Firth, J. A., Steiner, G. Z., Smith, L., … Sarris, J. (2019). The “online brain”: how the Internet may be changing our cognition. World Psychiatry, 18(2), 119-129. doi:10.1002/wps.20617
McSpadden, K. (2015, May 14). You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span Than a Goldfish. Retrieved from https://time.com/3858309/attention-spans-goldfish/
Paul, A. M. (2013, June 3). Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer. Retrieved from http://ideas.time.com/2013/06/03/why-we-should-read-literature/
ScienceDaily. (2019, November 5). How the Internet may be changing the brain. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/06/190605100345.htm
Thorpe, J. R. (2017, April 20). Why Reading Poetry Is Good For Your Brain. Retrieved from https://www.bustle.com/p/why-reading-poetry-is-good-for-your-brain-5188
Wong, J., & Brown, J. (2017, June 6). How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain. Retrieved from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_gratitude_changes_you_and_your_brain