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At MoMA, A Look At A Pivotal Moment For Matisse.

French artist Henri Matisse is probably best known for his decorative and colorful paintings, especially nudes and still lifes. But a show at the Museum of Modern Art, called "Matisse: Radical Invention," deals with a more experimental period in Matisse's life. Critic Lloyd Schwartz says the show allows viewers to see Matisse's growth as an artist.



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Other segments from the episode on August 24, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 24, 2010: Interview with Matt Richtel; Review of MOMA's show "Matisse : Radical Invention."


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Digital Overload: Your Brain On Gadgets


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

With computers, smartphones, apps, we have the potential of being
constantly connected just about anyplace we go: pretty amazing, but
maybe sometimes a little overwhelming, like you can never get away. Even
on vacation, it doesn't stop.

Scientists have been investigating how being constantly plugged in is
affecting our brains and our stress levels.

My guest, Matt Richtel, is a technology reporter for the New York Times
who has been writing about this new science. He won a Pulitzer Prize
this year for his series of articles, "Driven to Distraction," about the
dangers of driving while multitasking with cell phones and other digital

Matt Richtel, welcome to FRESH AIR. You've come up with a term I really
like, the screen invasion, to describe how we're always connected to a
screen, whether when we're in a car or at our desk or walking down the
street. Just describe the state of the screen invasion right now.

Mr. MATT RICHTEL (Technology Reporter, New York Times): Well, I think
you've actually done it well. There are – at one time, a screen meant
maybe something in your living room. But now it's something in your
pocket. So it goes everywhere. And I guess we've all experienced it.

It can be behind the wheel. It can be at the dinner table. It can be – I
guess we'll get this interview started off on the slightly off-color
note: It can be in the bathroom. We see it everywhere today.

GROSS: And it certainly feels to me like I'm consuming more information
than I used to because there's always another email to read in addition
to all the reading that I have to do for my job. Is that scientifically
true, that Americans on the whole are consuming more information than we
used to?

Mr. RICHTEL: Yeah, absolutely. I don't want to overwhelm you with
numbers in the spirit of what you've just said. It's in some of our
articles. But I believe it's three times the amount of information we
consumed in 1960.

If you look at some of the data that we've reported, people sit at their
desks and, you know, they can check something like 40 websites a day.
They will switch programs sitting at a desk something like 36 times an
hour. It's a kind of an onslaught of information coming today.

GROSS: And before we get to what that's doing to our brains, let's talk
about vacations. And with the end of summer, vacation time has kind of
run out for a lot of people, but vacation, one of things you look
forward to now with vacations, it's - you're going to get a break from
that flow of data, though some people don't get a break. They don't want
the break. They take – you know, they're still, like, texting and
emailing and surfing and all of that stuff.

So you did this really interesting article. You went basically on a
retreat or a vacation with several scientists who are all studying the
impact of this, you know, digital data on our brains. And tell us about
what the rules were for this vacation.

Mr. RICHTEL: I guess it was a rule, or I guess it was maybe just the
reality of going to a place where it was impossible to break the rule,
the rule being no devices.

And we were in the San Juan River, southern part of Utah, right at the
four corners. And the reason why I say the rule was not breakable was
there was no cell phone coverage. There was not Internet.

We crossed the first day under this 150-foot bridge, right after we
launched our rafts, and one of the scientists said it's the end of
civilization, by which he meant your cell phone will no longer work.

GROSS: So what was the goal of this vacation or trip or retreat or
experiment, whatever you want to call it?

Mr. RICHTEL: The goal of this retreat/vacation/trip was I suppose
several-fold. One goal was to go on vacation. These are elite
neuroscientists. There were five. They happened to be all men, although
the trip's organizer had invited more, including some women. These were
the five that said yes.

Partly they wanted to get away. Partly, though, they wanted to
effectively go on vacation and see it through a neurologic lens. They
wanted to take a look at what was happening to their brains and their
perspectives, and by extension ours, as they got off the grid.

And those were the two key elements to the trip.

GROSS: Basically the scientists were divided in half, between people who
thought that it would make a really big difference to be away from all
the digital data and the scientists who thought it wouldn't. Would you
describe the differences in their points of view?

Mr. RICHTEL: Yeah, I mean, this was really – it took a while for me to
kind of pick up that you tend to think of, well, elite scientists, they
must be elite, different from us in some way.

But on a basic level, there was a rift in this group that is the same
rift, I think, that – the same discussion, debate we're having among
ourselves and our friends. And that is, a couple of these guys felt like
going in that heavy technology use changed their ability to focus, to
attend to things.

And so on the day-to-day basis in their own lives, they tried to keep it
occasionally at arm's length. That was two of the five.

And three of the five went in saying, look, this is an enormous tool for
me, technology. As academics, we need it to stay in touch with our
peers, the people who work for us, our graduate students. We need to
follow the latest developments. It is invaluable, and therefore,
whatever small problems or inattention it creates or distraction far
pales by comparison to the benefits. And that's a debate I suppose we're
all having.

GROSS: One of the things that the scientists talked about is a
phenomenon that I've noticed on my vacations, although I never had a
name for it but it's called the three-day effect. What is it?

Mr. RICHTEL: Three-day effect, you start to feel more relaxed. Maybe you
sleep a little better. Maybe you don't reach for your phone pinging in
your pocket or even feel compelled to. Maybe you wait a little longer
before answering a question. Maybe you don't feel in a rush to do
anything. Your sense of urgency fades.

It's something that didn't surprise anybody on the trip. It certainly
didn't surprise me or my editors. But I think what made it interesting
is they were trying to put science to this question, or rather they
said: Let's see if we can identify anything in this three-day effect
that might be the basis for future study that might help us understand
what is happening to us when we're overwhelmed by data, and what happens
to us when we get away from it.

GROSS: So did the scientists reach any conclusions as a result of this
trip, and did anybody's conclusion contradict the beliefs that they had
when they first started this vacation?

Mr. RICHTEL: Well, I am a journalist. So you will get a yes and no

GROSS: Okay.

Mr. RICHTEL: I will give you both sides. I think to some extent, at
least the skeptics, who I described earlier, did see a bit of a change
in their perspective.

It was not a wholesale change, but they did say, you know, I notice that
I am not quite as engaged in my world when I'm constantly using devices
as I am when I'm away from them. I notice that I can I can give myself
over to conversations a little bit differently, and I may change my own

They also said that revelation, if you will, let's call it a small R,
will inform my research going forward and may help us reach broader
conclusions for other folks. But they didn't say: I understand now what
is happening to the brain. They simply said: There is something that
merits real study here.

GROSS: So you've been looking at how technology, digital technology, is
changing people's lives and changing their brains. So what's the lens
that you're looking through? What are some of the things you've been
looking for as a reporter?

Mr. RICHTEL: You know, halfway through this year, writing about this and
following on the distracted driving series last year, I think we've come
upon an analogy that really informs how we're covering this and that as
I've spoken to scientists, they've embraced, too. And the analogy is
technology as analogous to food. Shall I go on?

GROSS: Yes, go on.

Mr. RICHTEL: So just as food nourishes us and we need it for life, so
too in the 21st century, in the modern age, we need technology. You
cannot survive without the communications tools. The productivity tools
are essential. And yet, food has pros and cons to it. We know that some
food is Twinkies and some is Brussels sprouts. And we know that if we
overeat, it causes problems.

Similarly, after, say, 20 years of glorifying all technology as if all
computers were good and all use of it was good, I think science is
beginning to embrace the idea that some technology is Twinkies, and some
technology is Brussels sprouts.

And if we consume too much technology, just like if we consume too much
food, it can have ill effects. And that is the moment in time we find
ourselves in with this series and with the way we are digesting, if you
will, technology all over the place, everywhere today.

GROSS: So what is that line between it being helpful and, you know,
nourishing and being a hazard?

Mr. RICHTEL: That is exactly the question. What is the line right now
when we go from a kind of technology nourishment to a kind of obesity,
to a kind of stepping backwards, to a kind of distraction that rather
than informing us or making us more productive, distracts us, impedes
our relationships, impedes our productivity?

And there's ample evidence, or rather, let's say, growing evidence that
that line is closer than we've imagined or that we've acknowledged.

GROSS: My guest is Matt Richtel, a technology reporter for the New York
Times. We'll talk more about what happens when we're overwhelmed by data
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Matt Richtel, a technology reporter for the New York
Times. He's been writing about how being constantly connected to digital
technology is affecting our brains and our behavior.

Earlier in our conversation, he told us about accompanying a group of
five professors on a vacation in Utah in a remote area out of cell phone
and Internet range. They intentionally went off the grid to study if a
retreat into nature would reverse the effects of heavy use of digital
devices on their behavior.

So do you think that the scientists ended this vacation with the feeling
that vacations are important, that they're important for our brains, as
well as to relax and have fun?

Mr. RICHTEL: Unequivocal, yes. I mean, they walked away basically saying
that people need to take breaks. They aren't sure from a scientific
perspective how long the break needs to be, but as one of them said, I
thought beautifully, one of the skeptics, he said we didn't understand
how aspirin worked for years, even when we were prescribing it. We
didn't understand the scientific mechanism. He said, I'm prepared to
tell you I don't know exactly the scientific mechanism behind vacation,
but you ought to be taking it.

GROSS: You know, and I can tell you, too, just from my experience, that
the difference between a weekend, Saturday and Sunday, and a three-day
weekend, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, is huge. And it reminds me of that
three-day effect idea we were talking about.

Mr. RICHTEL: You may have alluded to this earlier, about the value of
downtime. Some of the science we're looking at now is, I guess, a bit
indirect, if you will. For instance, take the effect of downtime for
rats. When – at UCSF, they've been doing experiments about how rats

When a rat has a new experience, say standing on a table, through
brainwave measurements, they can tell that the rat basically expresses
new neurons, new neural activity.

If the rat has then downtime, those neural networks and those new
neurons make their way from the hippocampus, a part of the brain that's
kind of a gateway for memory, into the rest of the brain. In other
words, in short, during downtime, you record memory, you set the basis
for learning.

Well, by contrast, what happens if you don't have downtime? What if in
the quiet moments, you are fiddling with your device? What if sitting at
the bus stop, instead of kind of letting your mind wander, you're
playing a quick, casual game? What if, you know, standing in line at the
grocery store, you're taking a photo or checking a photo or checking
your email?

There seems to be some evidence that this constant use of our devices,
in addition to being entertaining and maybe creating productivity, takes
a neurological toll.

GROSS: That we don't have time to process what we've learned or even to
remember it.

Mr. RICHTEL: And also, conceivably, some scholars say, although again
this is based on hypothesis from indirect evidence, that you're not
spending time creating.

So during boredom, if you will, you oftentimes may create something. You
may entertain yourself with a thought. You may augment something that
you've been – an idea you've been doing at work, and then that period of
time, you're not doing that.

Just one other thing: When you are constantly on your device, there is
clear evidence to show this, you can be experiencing stress. For
instance, very clear research will show, out of the University of
California, that will show that – I believe the Irvine campus – that
when you're constantly interrupted by email, you are experiencing
stress. Stress equals stress hormones. Stress hormones take their toll
on the brain. Specifically, cortisol gets released, and that can have an
effect on long-term memory production.

GROSS: What's the effect on long-term memory?

Mr. RICHTEL: Well, again, this is an area where we're kind of drawing
some conclusions from indirect evidence. And the short answer is, we're
not sure yet what the cortisol release from heavy technology use does,
but over time, heavy cortisol production can reduce your ability to form

So if you add up a whole bunch of shots of cortisol, you can create some
memory impact.

GROSS: Wow. So the picture that you're painting is the more data that we
take in, the less we remember, the more stressed we are and the less
creative we become.

Mr. RICHTEL: I'm going to say that. Let's say that all in small letters
and maybe in parentheses because that is the hypotheses that researchers
are going on and that they're trying to explore and that indirect
evidence suggests to us today.

What we've piecing together in this series is some of that neurological
evidence with a whole bunch of behavioral evidence. So let's call it,
you know, the science of the brain and the science of behavior that
we're trying to marry together in this series as a way to offer pointers
about what all this technology use is doing.

You know, behavioral evidence is this fascinating stuff out of, for
instance, Stanford, that would suggest that heavy multimedia multi-
taskers have more trouble filtering out irrelevant information. They
have more trouble staying focused.

They tend to have more trouble, remarkably enough, switching between
tasks. You would think heavy multi-taskers would switch more easily. But
they have more trouble switching.

This stuff doesn't tell us cause and effect. We don't know, are the
heavy multimedia-taskers folks who, by definition, are – have more
trouble with these things, or is the heavy multimedia causing them to
have more trouble with these things?

But when you marry it with the neurological evidence we talked about a
little bit ago, a picture starts to form that to the scholar seems very
scary. And that picture is, in a nutshell, do this stuff a lot, you have
– do this multimedia a lot, multitask a lot, it starts to take a toll
neurologically on your abilities, on your proficiency, on – let's put it
this way – your capabilities.

GROSS: Well, that's very ironic because we think when we're multi-
tasking that we're really doing great, we're getting two things done for
the price of one or three things done in the amount of time it should
take to do one thing. But what are scientists learning about how
efficiently we're doing any of those two or three things when we do them
at the same time?

Mr. RICHTEL: Yeah, this is another place where I don't have to
equivocate. It's pretty clear to scientists you cannot do more than one
thing at a time. This research goes back years, and it is having like
its new day in the sun, its new applicability.

Your brain effectively processes one stream of information at a time.
I've heard this very basic test from a Stanford scientist that has stuck
with me. It's a kind of cocktail party test that researchers have known
about for years, where if you sit at a cocktail party and you're
listening to the person in front of you, you can't really listen to the
person behind you.

In fact, you may pick up very basic things like your name being said, if
someone says it behind you, but beyond that, you're not processing both
those streams of information.

So apply that to the person sitting at a desk, fiddling with a device or
trying to read an IM while surfing a website or talking on the phone to
a boss or colleague or subordinate. What you are basically doing is
switching rapidly among those tasks, not doing them at the same time.

And all the research says when you switch among those tasks, you cut
your effectiveness at each one of them by a significant degree.

GROSS: We've been talking about some of the downsides that scientists
are finding about how, you know, constant texting and emailing and
surfing the Internet is affecting our brains, our attention, our memory,
our creativity. There's probably upsides, too. Are there scientists who
believe that our brains are becoming, like, more sparkling and better
wired and that we're developing new capacities with our brains because
of all this new stuff that we're doing?

Mr. RICHTEL: Yeah, absolutely. And one interesting study out of the
University of Rochester shows that there is some evidence that when you
play a certain kind of video game, you develop more visual acuity. You
can pick up more things on a screen.

In addition to that, there's, as we started out comparing technology to
food, there's enormous nutritional value to technology in terms of the
fact that you can offload some of your thinking onto a computer.

Now, this isn't exactly a neurological impact, but it is certainly worth
noting. For instance, you know, when I came down to the studio today, I
let my Google maps get me directions here, rather than taking up
someone's time here, calling them on the phone.

I can now look things up on the computer with great ease that I couldn't
do before. I can make calculations that I wasn't able to do before. I
can save information and organize it in ways I couldn't do before.

I think, though, that is different than the question of how it's
changing our brains. I just don't want to – I don't want to leave the
audience thinking we're unaware of the enormous benefits that technology
is providing.

As to the neurological benefits that it's providing, that research is
very embryonic, too. There's some stuff being done at UCSF where
scientists are trying to figure out, might they be able to train older
drivers to be more attentive, to pick up more information in their
surroundings that would let them react more quickly?

Could they effectively develop games that would have transferability
outside the game environment into the real world environment? A key word
in this discussion is transfer. How do tasks we perform on the Internet,
on a computer, transfer to real life? That stuff is still very much in
its embryonic stages.

GROSS: My guest, Matt Richtel, will be back in the second half of the
show. He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning technology reporter for the New York
Times. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with New York Times
technology reporter Matt Richtel. He's been reporting on what scientists
are learning about how heavy use of new digital devices, like computers
and smartphones, is changing our brains, our behavior and our stress

This year, Richtel won a Pulitzer Prize for his series, "Driving While
Distracted," about the dangers of driving while multitasking. We've been
talking about the impact on the brain when you're constantly connected
to digital technology.

Getting back to the idea, if our brains are improving in some way as a
result of the digital data onslaught, don't some scientists think that
the brain is more capable of developing, of rewiring itself than
scientists used to think?

Mr. RICHTEL: Absolutely. This is one of the things that makes this area
of study so interesting at this moment in time. As of say, 20 years ago,
scientists began to realize that the brain is what they call plastic. It
bends and it evolves and it changes throughout a lifetime, whereas
opposed to years ago, they used to think, well, your brain basically
formed when you were a kid and then it was static, it was done.

The recognition, the revelation that the brain changes over time means
that what happens in our environment effectively acts as a molding
experience for our brains. And so when we get into a place like this,
where there is such a fundamental change to our environment through the
use of handheld devices, ubiquitous information, media everywhere, we
can now expect that that changes our brains. Whereas, two decades ago,
we might not have thought it had any effect internally. We might have
thought it was just some external thing we experience.

GROSS: I keep wondering, did my brain develop in a different way than
children's brains are developing now, because they have different
technology than I did when I was growing up?

Mr. RICHTEL: Terry, you are asking what I think is the question. I mean,
this is - it's maybe one thing for those of us whose brains are mostly
formed. But the frontal lobe of the brain tends to develop last. It is
the thing scientists say makes us the most human. There is some thought
that the way kids' brains are developing now is different from the way
ours developed. And now I've got to say I can't tell you any more. Can
you stay tuned until early December?

GROSS: Oh, you're coming out with an article then?

Mr. RICHTEL: This is something we have been – I have spent much of the
year researching and I think this frontal lobe question is fascinating,
and it's really the center of this conversation. Even notwithstanding
the things I'm not comfortable talking about yet, this is the part of
the brain that - it's the front of the brain. It evolves last. It sets
priorities. It helps us balance between and make choices. It essentially
says, here's where I'm going to direct my attention at any given time.
And it's kind of long-term thinking, long-term goal-setting.

But it is constantly, if you will, in a simplistic sense, under
bombardment from other parts of the brain. The sensory parts that like,
you know, we see something and we send a message to the frontal lobe
that says, should I pay attention and how much?

When we have an onslaught of data coming in, the sensory cortices of the
brain are now constantly bombarding the frontal lobe, saying, what
should I pay attention to?

GROSS: Right, and that is so distracting, and it makes it impossible to
do the project that you're really trying to do.

Mr. RICHTEL: And on some level, all this modern technology, what it
winds up doing is kind of playing to a very primitive clash between the
sensory cortices and the frontal lobe. If you take yourself back
millennia, and you're in the jungle or you're in the forest and you see
a lion, then the lion hits your sensory cortices and says to the frontal
lobe, whatever you're doing, whatever hut you're building, stop and run.

Well, here's what scientists think is happening in this data era, is
that these pings of incoming email, the phone ringing, the buzz in your
pocket, is almost like we get little tiny lions, little tiny threats or,
let's say, maybe little tiny rabbits that you want to chase and eat, you
get little tiny bursts of adrenaline that are bombarding your frontal
lobe asking you to make choices. But these in some ways aren't these
modern bombardments; they're the most primitive bombardments. They're
playing to these most primitive impulses and they're asking our brain to
make very hard choices a lot.

GROSS: It's really interesting. Now, I don't know if this relates to
what you're saying or not, but here's a paradox for me; I'm driven crazy
by email because I feel every time I open it, I'm on everybody else's
agenda instead of my own. I'm answering their questions and responding
to their needs and doing all these things as opposed to doing the
research for my next interview or something, you know what I mean?

At the same time, when it's really late at night and I know it's time to
go to bed, I'll often say, I wonder what's in my email. And I'll check
it one last time because I'm just so curious. And it's hard for me to
reconcile that, that sense of curiosity, I wonder what's there, maybe
it's something interesting, I better open it. And the sense of, oh, if I
open it it's going to drive me crazy. There's things I'm going to have
to respond to right now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I don't want to. I need to go to sleep or I need to prepare my
interview or whatever, and those things are always clashing in me.

Mr. RICHTEL: You have illustrated a number of the concepts that underlie
the why question. And this is, to me, some of the most fascinating part
of what we learn not only in distracted driving, but that we learned –
that we're learning this year, which is given that we recognize
attention, that we're having trouble getting things done at some cases,
that we're having trouble focusing on the face of the person across from
us at the dinner table because we feel the buzz in our pockets, why? Why
are you compelled at night to check your device?

Do you want to take a shot at that before I start throwing out what some
of the research says?

GROSS: I always think maybe it'll be a little gift there, like some
really wonderful message, something like really interesting and
fascinating or somebody I'm dying to hear from.

Mr. RICHTEL: Terry, you are a winner. You know, if this were like
"Family Feud," that would be answer one or two.

GROSS: What did I win? What did I win?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHTEL: You have won an email. You've won an attachment you can't

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHTEL: So, let's break this down between psychological and
physiological. You've hit on one of the really interesting psychological
reasons people constantly feel compelled to check their devices. And
this goes to one of the ideas that psychiatrists think is the most
powerful in luring people, and it's called intermittent reinforcement.

I'll use a crude analogy. If you have a rat in a cage and the rat
doesn't know when a food dispenser is going to dispense a pellet, it
feels compelled to check all the time. It creates intermittent
reinforcement. You or I or anyone else who doesn't know when something
fascinating is going to come by email, when something good is going to
come, feel compelled to check all the time. So that would be a
psychological lure. And if you take that back again to the primitive
analogies that we discusses earlier, you know, you don't know when
you're going to get little rabbit coming in or a little lion. It's not
only the positives you're looking for but you also get stimulated by the

GROSS: You describe psychological reasons why we check our email even
when we don't want to be bombarded by it. Is there, like, a
neurochemical thing going on there too?

Mr. RICHTEL: Yeah, and these things, I mean, I guess as we all kind of
know in life, the brain and the body are hard to differentiate at this
point. But let's make that division and say that there's some research
out there now that says for instance, heavy video game use gives you
some dopamine release. Dopamine is a chemical that is also thought to be
involved with addiction. A lot of this research is still forming, so I
want to be careful not to overstep my understanding of this.

But the connection that scientists are making are saying basically this:
when you check your information, when you get a buzz in your pocket,
when you hear a ring — you get what they call a dopamine squirt. You get
a little rush of adrenaline. So you're getting that more and more and
more and more. Well, guess what happens in its absence? You feel bored.
You're actually conditioned by a kind of neurochemcial response.

Now, I don't want to go too much into the distracted driving thing
‘cause, you know, that was something we handled last year. But to me,
it's the most powerful manifestation in a way of this concept because
you're behind a two-ton vehicle and yet you feel compelled to check your
device, or you're sitting at a stoplight and you feel bored for a second
and you feel compelled to check it. That's a place where you might have
a deadly manifestation.

Sitting behind your desk, though, as we've talked about the last, you
know, hour or so, there are other kinds of manifestations, while not as
potentially dangerous, still take their toll.

GROSS: My guest is Matt Richtel, a technology reporter for The New York

We'll talk more about the effect of computers and digital devices on our
brains, after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Matt Richtel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning technology
reporter for The New York Times.

Since you've been covering the effect of digital media and devices on
our brains and our behavior, have you changed your behavior?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Okay. I'm going to say here that I know you have an online comic
strip; I know you wrote a novel...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...about the Internet and, of course, you're doing your articles
and you tweet too, don't you? Don't you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHTEL: Well, I, no. You know what, I actually think it, is the
hour up? I think it's up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHTEL: I am not tweeting now. I am not logging...

GROSS: You mean at this moment or in general?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHTEL: I'm going to say yes to both honestly.

GROSS: I'd be so annoyed if you were tweeting during this interview. I
can't tell you how annoyed I'd be.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHTEL: I am so having trouble paying attention to this

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHTEL: I – in some respects, yes, I have changed, particularly
driving. I don't use my device. I listen to a lot more sports radio. But
I haven't changed my habits nearly as much as I guess I'd like when I'm
sitting at my desk. I now have a more powerful, they call them
smartphones now, and it delivers me so much information that constantly
demands my attention and constantly gives me an opportunity to be
stimulated and I fall to it a lot.

I used to go - when I write both my non-fiction and my fiction, I would
go to cafes that didn't have Internet access deliberately so that I
could focus. But I know that also part of the reason I'm going to that
place is because I like the occasional break that I get. I know that I
am less focused around that stuff. Sometimes I just can't help myself.

GROSS: Because?

Mr. RICHTEL: Gosh, I guess for all the aforementioned reasons. Partly
because it's entertaining, partly because I think you alluded to
something very, very interesting a bit ago and I neglected to mention
it. But you said sometimes when you're facing something difficult or
challenging, you will just skip to the easier thing. You know, I think
that being the...

GROSS: That's funny, I don't remember saying that but I'm like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I do that. But I really don't remember saying that.

Mr. RICHTEL: Listen, one of us is misremembering, which means our
devices are affecting one of us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RICHTEL: But I think, I actually think that is, it's a really
powerful point in this conversation and it is for some of the stuff
you'll see us writing later on, particularly as it pertains to kids. You
know, it used to be if you wanted to procrastinate you had to go in the
living room and turn on the TV. But now that device is in your pocket
and I think more powerfully than that conceptually is, for a long time
the guise of computers has been the guise of productivity.

We always equated computers with productivity, and going back to the
initial analogy with food, we thought of all computers as nutritious.
Well, you kind of, you Terry, and I, Matt, and others, can kind of
excuse going to that device under the grounds that it has a kind of an
air of productivity to it. So as you avoid this more difficult problem,
thinking about an interview the next day, reading your background
materials, you can say, I'm not exactly watching TV. I'm certainly not
playing a video game. But I think you might acknowledge, well, let me
ask you, isn't that thing you're going to just a little bit of a
procrastination rather than a productivity that has a guise of

GROSS: Sometimes, yes, absolutely.

Mr. RICHTEL: So why do you do it?

GROSS: To take a break from the thing that's kind of hard or that I'm
bored of or that's – if my eyes start to close, you know, I feel this
like fatigue overwhelming me, I'll jump on my email because it'll wake
me up, because it's just like a little bit, a little bit, a little bit.
You know what I mean?

Mr. RICHTEL: And guess what?

GROSS: It's like one little bite at a time as opposed to a big project.

Mr. RICHTEL: And - and this is something forthcoming from us over time,
too, that we'll be baking into other things - it will not only wake you
up in the moment, but there's some evidence that, particularly as people
use video games heavily, it affects their sleep patterns throughout the

And so what's happening to you is a kind of arousal. But the question
is: Is that arousal benefitting you because it's enabling you to work
more? Or is it harming you because you're not getting the night's sleep
that in turn would let you be a better learner, maybe a – listen, this
has been an awesome interview, so not withstanding this interview, but
maybe it impinges an interview some day because you're more tired.

I know that as I get captivated by things at night, I know as kids get
captivated by things, it can affect their ability to learn and perform
the next day.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. Well, listen, you wrote such a great series called
"Driving While Distracted." This is the series you won the Pulitzer for,
and it was all about drivers, you know, texting and using their cell
phones while they drive and often getting into accidents, as a result.
And you looked at all the science behind that and the behavior behind

Now, here's one of the things that scares me: I don't text while
driving, and I try not to dial phone numbers while driving. But I will
dial a phone number in a parked spot and then listen through my headset
to a call - you know, just to somebody on the phone - and I'll think
that that's fine. But you've written that science is finding that it's
riskier to talk on a cell phone, even with a hands-free device, while
driving than it is to talk to a passenger in your car. And it's hard for
me to understand: What's the difference? I mean, you're still talking
and listening. Why is it different if you're doing it on a cell phone
than to somebody who's in the back seat or the front seat in the same

Mr. RICHTEL: It's not fair to call this nugget trivia, but in some ways,
this is one of the most interesting pieces of trivia I learned in
writing that series and that I get asked about the most. The reason is -
remember, we talked about how you can't process two streams of
information at a time. Well, if you're engaged in a phone conversation,
even if both hands are on the wheel, you're processing a stream of

Most times, you can get away with that because driving turns out to be,
you know, a fairly rote experience. But if something comes into your
field of vision, if a kid walks into the roadway unexpectedly, if a car
swerves into your lane, you have missed – you have forfeited
milliseconds of crucial time to make decisions that would've allowed you
otherwise to react. And I, you know, I did some research for our
articles on some really tragic accidents, head-on death collisions,
where the researchers tell me they would not have happened if a person
hadn't been on a hands-free phone.

Now, how is that different, you asked, from talking to a passenger next
to you? This kind of gets to that really fascinating nugget I mentioned
earlier. It turns out, when you're sitting next to someone in a car,
that person helps your safety, the research shows, by acting as a second
set of eyes. They watch the roadway. They modulate their conversation,
both topic and tone, based on what they see in front of them. They tend
to get more quiet when the weather gets bad. So rather than being a
detractor, like someone on the phone who can't see you or your
conditions, they're an advantage.

GROSS: All right. Well, Matt Richtel, it's been great to talk with you.
Thank you very much.

Mr. RICHTEL: Thank you, Terry. I've enjoyed it.

GROSS: And so, can people follow you on Twitter, now that we've
discouraged them from being, from using their devices 24 hours a day?

Mr. RICHTEL: They actually can't. I do try to be disciplined. And one of
the things I do, even though I didn't completely hit on this earlier, is
I've tried to shut down a few of my avenues, and that's one of them.

GROSS: Really? Interesting.

Mr. RICHTEL: So, yes.

GROSS: And what was the last straw for you?

Mr. RICHTEL: Well, I actually have modified my behavior, and I've done
it for a couple of reasons. And a chief one is that I've got a family
now. I've got a young, a baby, and one on the way. And both research and
intuition has told me when my devices are present, I am less present.

It's very clear from some fascinating research going back year's worth
with regard to TV, that when there's a screen on, the parents' eyes
shift and the parents' attention shift. And, you know, I can't stand it
when I'm not looking at my son and paying attention to him. I can tell
when I'm not. And I can't stand it, frankly, when other people aren't
invested to me. And my relationship with him and with my family has
really made it very clear to me that if I'm constantly looking at my
device, I am not giving him what he deserves as a human being. And I
think I'm also creating a human being in him that is going to give
others what they – less than they deserve.

And so this is, I guess in that respect, become very personal for me,
and I would wish upon kids that their parents would silence the thing
when they're nurturing.

GROSS: Matt, thanks again.

Mr. RICHTEL: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Matt Richtel is a technology reporter for The New York Times. You
can find links to his articles in a series "Your Brain on Computers," on
our website:

Coming up, we unplug. Lloyd Schwartz has a review of the Matisse show at
the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

This is FRESH AIR.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
At MoMA, A Look At A Pivotal Moment For Matisse


French artist Henri Matisse is probably best-known for his decorative
and colorful paintings, especially nudes and still lifes. But a current
show at the Museum of Modern Art called "Matisse: Radical Invention,"
focuses on a period in his life from 1913 to 1917, when he was
experimenting with different styles.

Our critic Lloyd Schwartz has a review.

LLOYD SCHWARTZ: In 2003, the Museum of Modern Art put on an important
show comparing Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, maybe the two greatest
European painters of the 20th century. They were friends and rivals.
They influenced and even collected each other's work.

Now a marvelous new show at MoMA - "Matisse: Radical Invention, 1913 to
1917" - suggests a central way Matisse was very different from Picasso.
The Spanish master, practically a synonym for modern art, had an
unstoppable sense of direction. He'd pursue one style - a Blue Period, a
Rose Period, Cubism - and when he got to the bottom of it, he'd move on
to another.

But in the four-year period this Matisse show investigates, the artist's
development is much less linear, much less divided into straightforward
chapters. Matisse seemed to be trying all sorts of different things at
the same time, and he produced some of his greatest paintings.

Modern artists were trying to find new ways of looking at the world,
moving away from depicting images in traditional three dimensions, and
discovering livelier and simpler - yet also more complex - ways to
convey those images. Even before the central period stressed in this
exhibit, we see Matisse experimenting with dimension, a kind of
flattening process in which the images become less literal and more

One of his strangest and most original paintings, "Bathers with a
Turtle," is from 1908, barely a year after Picasso's tradition-
shattering "Demoiselles d'Avignon," in which the bodies of five women
have been transformed from rounded human beings into fractured and
contorted figures with African masks for faces.

Matisse's figures are even more mysterious: three simplified nudes,
almost like a child's drawing. He offers no explanation for why they're
feeding a turtle, or why one of them has her fingers stuffed into her
mouth. Horizontal bands of blue abstractly represent a backdrop of water
and sky. It's like Cezanne, but more radical. Modern art is just

Throughout the show, we see Matisse wrestling with the same issues his
most celebrated contemporaries were confronting. But Matisse seems to be
moving backwards and sideways, as well as forward. And through new X-ray
technology, the curators have been able to trace Matisse's own
processes. We now know when he's deliberately muting his dazzling
spectrum of colors or changing the position of his figures. And in many
places, instead of hiding some of his changes, he actually allows us to
observe them - as if the figures themselves have been moving around the
surface of the canvases.

The climax of the show includes two of his most extraordinary paintings,
both combining an extreme of abstraction with readable, figurative
images. Both are huge, but one of them is monumental and hieratic, and
the other is achingly poignant. One is the eight-by-12-foot "Bathers by
a River," from the Art Institute of Chicago, where this show originated.
Matisse reworked this painting during this entire period, changing it
from a lightweight, pastel-colored beach scene to an exotic Eden, a
gigantic icon with four female demigoddesses outlined against a row of
broad, flat, vertical panels, with a sinister - or is it benign - white
snake rearing up its head from the bottom of the canvas.

The other masterpiece is MoMA's own "Piano Lesson," an eight-foot-high
canvas depicting Matisse's young son at the keyboard, with his mother or
piano teacher on a stool keeping shadowy watch. I grew up in New York,
and this has been one of my favorite paintings since I was old enough to
go to museums. The "Piano Lesson," too, has its mysteries, in its
combination of cool geometry and touching intimacy. The shadow on the
boy's face replicates the triangular metronome on the piano. And an even
larger green triangle crosses the room. Is it a shaft of unsettling
twilight? It's as if time is casting its own shadow over everything,
including youth and art itself.

These two amazing paintings, within a period of staggering artistic
ferment, emerge out of Matisse's complicated search for direction, a
search that took many turns before the artist found his direction. Or
were these very turns Matisse's true direction?

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is the classical music editor of the Boston
Phoenix and teaches creative writing at the University of Massachusetts,
Boston. He reviewed "Matisse: Radical Invention," a show at the Museum
of Modern Art through October 11th.

You can look at all the paintings he mentioned on our website,, where you can also download podcasts of our show.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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