The French word frisson describes something English has no better word for: a brief intense reaction, usually a feeling of excitement, recognition, or terror. It's often accompanied by a physical shudder, but not so much when you're web surfing.
You know how it happens. You're clicking here or clicking there, and suddenly you have the OMG moment. In recent days, for example, I felt frissons when learning that Gary Coleman had died, that most of the spilled oil was underwater, that Joe McGinness had moved in next to the Palins, that a group of priests' mistresses had started their own Facebook group, and that Bill Nye the Science Guy says "to prevent Computer Vision Syndrome, every 20 minutes, spend 20 seconds looking 20 feet away."
Oh, there were many more. A frisson can be quite a delight. The problem is, I seem to be spending way too much time these days in search of them. In an ideal world, I would sit down at my computer, do my work, and that would be that. In this world, I get entangled in surfing and an hour disappears.
Twitter is an enabler for this behavior. It provides a quiet, subtle pressure to tweet frissons, and be tweeted in return. A good tweet can involve a funny comment, a snarky one, or one so poetic I read it and marvel. It can contain breaking news. It can be a small autobiographical revelation. I enjoy this. Deprived of speech, I chatter all day on Twitter, and have virtual relationships with the carefully chosen Tweeters I follow. Some are great writers. Some are deep thinkers. Some keep me updated on American Idol. Some persist in updating the scores of sporting events. I hate that, except in a situation like the Blackhawks' winning season. I care about the Blackhawks, but not enough to watch. All I require is the frisson.
This is not in praise of Twitter. It has to do with the possibility that my brain--and yours too, since you are here--has been rewired by the internet. There's an article by Nicholas Carr in the new issue of Wired magazine about a UCLA professor who used an MRI scan to observe the brain activity of six volunteers. Three were web veterans, three were not. He found that veteran Web users had developed "distinctive neural pathways."
He asked his newbies to surf the web for six days, and then he repeated the experiment: "The new scans revealed that their brain activity had changed dramatically; it now resembled that of the veteran surfers." The article suggests this possibility: "When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain."
In other words, instead of seeking substance, we're distractedly scurrying hither and yon, seeking frisson.