After living alone for nearly two years in a house in the northern Vermont woods, I returned to the city alert in all the wrong ways. The timpani of the symphony playing in a Chinese restaurant struck me as a herd of deer soon to bound through the wall. At first glance, every street light seemed a full moon. I’d gone through a kind of inner climate change: my attention had dilated to take in the subtleties of the woods and weather; my memory had sharpened to navigate miles of drifted snow. Reacclimating to the city would have been challenge enough, but there was an extra challenge. It was the early aughts, screens were suddenly everywhere, and everyone else was going through inner climate change, too.
On my daily snowshoe treks through the trees, I’d begun to be able to see black-capped chickadees, no matter the camouflage of the snowy branches. My eyes gone soft, the space between the trees would flicker with movement. On rare phone calls with my friend Ray, I realized I was listening the same way—not hunting for what he wasn’t saying about his medical-school unease but just picturing everything he said and waiting for a flicker in the spaces between. My memory was opening, too. As I unloaded groceries from the village market, the songs that had been playing on the overhead speakers would follow like a souvenir map—without any effort, I could remember my progress, lyric by lyric, through the aisles.
At the time, I didn’t know why this was happening, but the invisible lens through which I experienced the world, a lens whose existence I’d never felt or considered—my sense of time, my sense of place, my attention, and my memory—was adapting to help me see in the woods and to help me navigate. Perhaps even stranger, I could only register these changes once Ray found me an oddly perceptive listener, or once my groceries became a kind of radio, which itself was a kind of map, both of my market visit and, more indirectly, of my changing attention and memory.
Our brains evolved to have plasticity in order for us to survive, and evolution did such a good job that the basic structure of the human brain hasn’t needed to change in the past forty thousand years. Our adaptations to new places and ways of life—to being hunters and gatherers in Africa, to navigating the streets of modern-day cities (as a famous study of London cabbies has shown, the gray matter in their posterior hippocampi is notably greater than that of the average Londoner), and now to tapping our way through digital life—all happen within our forty-thousand-year-old brains, through the strengthening of links between neurons, through the growth of new neurons and synapses, and through the release of neurotransmitters.
Basically, we begged out of evolution by developing brains adaptable enough to handle the changes in our physical and cognitive environments on their own. As the Nobel Prize–winning biologist Gerald Edelman pointed out with his theory of “neural Darwinism,” selection works at the cellular level within each person’s life span much as natural selection works at the species level over many generations. Our brains adapt to our environments to help us survive.
But while my brain adapted to less sensory information in the woods, everyone else’s had adapted to more. Screens mushroomed in nearly everybody’s hand—and for a forty-thousand-year-old brain, the flashes and resulting dopamine hits, and the social threats and resulting fight-or-flight responses, might as well have been happening in a new kind of forest. Cognitive traits shifted in ways that were maladaptive to life offline: our attention spans dropped; our ability to be alone waned (six minutes without a phone and subjects in one study chose to receive electroshocks rather than confront “solitude”); and we lost our ability, quite literally, to be where we are (25 percent of U.S. car accidents are tied to texting).
I felt like a tawny owl whose plumage had gone whiter in some remote snowy outpost, only to return to his native woods to find the trees had gone brown due to climate change and now demanded brown plumage to thrive. To live in the new digital woods, you needed not to pay attention to most things and not to remember most of what you saw.
But I wasn’t sure I wanted to lose the brain the woods had given me. Not that I needed to remember every lyric from the aisles of the grocery store. Not that I didn’t want to be able to filter out more of what I saw flashing on screens. But I wanted to hold on to a kind of attention that could wait for answers to questions I didn’t know how to ask, and to hold on to a kind of memory that recalled whatever I needed as a means of orientation, as a way of knowing where I fit in the world.
But the adaptations in my brain wouldn’t be my choice—I could make choices only about my screen time and hope the trades were worth it. Not just the trades on my time, which I could track, and my data, which I couldn’t, but the trades on my cognitive traits. What happens to my attention span for every hour I spend on social media? What happens to my memory? And what happens to my openness to new ideas?
For the majority of the past forty thousand years, there was no possibility of a virtual man-made realm superimposed on the physical realm we walked through, no possibility of getting caught daily between two different environments, and between traits for one realm that were ill-suited to the other.
Now, almost two decades after my return from the woods, I still long for a new kind of map. A map with the digital world and the traits it calls for, and with the old physical world and the traits it calls for, and with the borders clearly marked where the two realms conflict: where the border crossings are treacherous, where we’re bound to lose the parts of ourselves we value. So we know the trades we’re making. So we don’t get lost, and lose ourselves, in the digital woods.
Howard Axelrod is the author of the new book The Stars in Our Pockets: Getting Lost and Sometimes Found in the Digital Age and The Point of Vanishing: A Memoir of Two Years in Solitude, named one of the best books of 2015 by Slate, the Chicago Tribune, and Entropy magazine and one of the best memoirs of 2015 by Library Journal. His essays have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, O Magazine, Politico, Salon, the Virginia Quarterly Review, and the Boston Globe. He has taught at Harvard and the University of Arizona and is currently the director of the creative writing program at Loyola University in Chicago.
Excerpt adapted from The Stars in Our Pockets: Getting Lost and Sometimes Found in Our Digital Age, by Howard Axelrod (Beacon Press, 2020). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.