Are you distracted, unfocused and absent-minded? Check, check and check. Hey, I have the attention span of a gerbil, but I play it off by saying I'm great at multitasking. After all, there's a lot of information to keep up with: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, news feeds, and learning how to use the Next Big Thing. Adapt or die.
But a recent study suggests that the nonstop flow of Internet information we're constantly bombarded with is actually rewiring our brains -- especially in younger people -- and that the results are both good and bad.
"Imagining the Internet," a new report by the Pew Research Center, posits that "hyperconnected" young people growing up in today's networked world and counting on the Internet as their "external brain" are developing a different set of skills and thought processes than what we grew up with.
On the plus side, young users are increasingly able to accurately discern good-quality information from bad and work collaboratively to use that information to crowd-source solutions to problems.
The downside? "Constantly connected teens and young adults will thirst for instant gratification and often make quick, shallow choices."
The findings are based on an opt-in online survey of more than a thousand research scientists, information technology experts and consultants.
- 55 percent agreed that in 2020, the brains of multitasking teens and young adults are "wired" differently from those over age 35 because of their ability to quickly and effectively search and access collective intelligence on the Internet.
- 42 percent agreed that in 2020, these same users do not retain information; spend most of their energy sharing short social messages, being entertained and distriacted from "deep engagement with people and knowledge"; and lack deep-thinking capabilities and face-to-face social skills.
Among the anecdotal predictions, participant Amber Case, a cyberanthropologist and CEO of Geoloqi, wrote, "The human brain is wired to adapt to what the environment around it requires for survival...Memories are becoming hyperlinks to information triggered by keywords and URLs. We are beoming ''persistent paleontologists' of our own external memories, as our brains are storing the keywords to get back to those memories and not the full memories themselves."
Heavy stuff indeed (I didn't even know there was such thing as a "cyberanthropologist").
But what does it mean for us?
- Scary smart consumers. This has been going on for awhile, and the Pew study predictions bear it out: in researching what they need, today's Internet-information-fueled young consumers are faster, smarter and completely immune to puffery and marketing-speak. One respondent wrote, "They will operate at a much quicker rate in terms of decision making, analysis and methodology than my generation."
- Less focused buyers. The other side of the coin. Along with the good stuff, tomorrow's consumers will struggle with increasingly short attention spans, leaving them vulnerable to impulsive decisions. This could open doors for trusted advisors to help them cull through the informational static to make an informed decision.
- Recognizing the upside of ADHD. With a growing plethora of information at their fingertips, 2020 consumers will "embrace ADHD as a tool" in cognitive ability, wrote William Schrader, a consultant who founded PSINet in the 1980s.
- A need to slow down. Again, the opposite side of the embracing-ADHD coin. As instant connection and gratification become the norm, "long-form cognition and offline conemplative time will start to be viewed as valuable and will be re-integrated into social and work life in interesting and surprising ways," one respondent wrote.
Based on these reflections, perhaps the young insurance buyers of 2020 will want to gather all the facts and information they need online -- but then will want to actually buy their insurance face to face from a real, live independent insurance agent operating out of a brick-and-mortar storefront -- maybe even using paper forms.