What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

January 25, 2014 — Leave a comment

What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. Norton 2010. 264 pages. $26.95.

Atlantic essayist Nicholas Carr describes an Internetaddicted future.

Nicholas Carr achieved notoriety after a July 2008 article in The Atlantic, in which he asked, “Is Google Making us Stoopid?” For all its wonders, all the convenience it creates for consumers and the money it makes for companies across the world, the Internet may actually be a diseducating force, gradually and invisibly rendering the surfing public incapable of reflective thought or sustained attention, argued Carr.

In posing this polemic, he set fire to a debate that still smolders. Web proponent Clay Shirky called Carr’s essay a “caricature of Luddism.” Best-selling author Steven Johnson, writing in the Chicago Tribune, derided it as “perfect fodder for a ‘don’t-be-ridiculous’ blog post.”

In his newest book, The Shallows, Carr responds to these criticisms and shows that neurological and cultural effects of heavy Internet use are becoming more observable and measurable. As our reliance on ever brighter and faster Internet content increases, a new force is taking hold across the culture of the Web-connected world, leading to changes in reading habits and even in human brains. The Internet trends of today foreshadow the surfing, the teaching, learning, and thinking of tomorrow. The picture of our intellectual future, rendered thoroughly, convincingly, and often beautifully in Carr’s text, is bleak enough to give any serious mind some serious pause. Studies show that constant exposure to highspeed Internet is making us quicker in our ability to make connections and more adept at finding what we’re looking for online using search engines. But we’re losing something of great value in the trade: the literary mind-set.

The Internet has many virtues and is perhaps as great an aid to research and conversation as Gutenberg’s printing press or the library of Alexandria; however, the effect that the Web has on the brain is rather distinct from that of books and more traditional literary activity. If sitting and reading a piece of static text for long periods of time feels “less natural” or “less intuitive” than zipping through the various pages, applications, and comments of a Web page, that’s because it is. The patience and focus required for sustained engagement with static text must be cultivated, a primary benefit of reading. Our most significant achievements as a species – the discovery of the scientific method, the recognition of universal human rights, and the exploration of space – would have been impossible without the rigorous, stubborn, disciplined, and unnatural literary mind-set; brains, in other words, capable of understanding and analyzing extremely complex narrative and dialogic arguments.

The traits of the informed intellect are essential to the furtherance of scholarship, particularly in difficult and abstract domains like science or philosophy, but the educated mindset isn’t characteristic of the brain’s natural state. Like those of most of our cousins in the animal kingdom, the human neural and sensory network is biologically predisposed to quick attention shifts and unstructured rapid-fire responses to stimuli. In our wildest state, we’re wideeyed, constantly searching our environment for threats to be avoided or opportunities to be exploited. We emerged upon the world naked, dirty, and easily distracted.

Book culture offered humanity some reprieve from this condition. But the Internet, in the speed and randomness with which it presents new information to the user, encourages a return to the feral mode of information gathering. Although the Web overflows with text, the bounty of links available in any article or post, the advertisements, the widgets, the upto- the-moment blog displays increasingly crowding out the pages of even ostensible information sources, have the effect of pushing the brain away from the words on the screen as forcefully as they pull the user toward the most up-to-the-moment celebrity tweet.

“The need to evaluate links and make related navigational choices, while also processing a multiplicity of rapid sensory stimuli, requires mental coordination and decision making, distracting the brain from the work of interpreting text or other information,” says Carr. “The influx of competing messages that we receive whenever we go online not only overloads our working memory; it makes it much harder for our frontal lobes to concentrate our attention on any one thing. The process of memory consolidation can’t even get started. The more we use the Web, the more we train our brain to be distracted, to process information very quickly and very efficiently but without sustained attention.”

Herein lies an explanation for why so many of us feel challenged to concentrate even when we’re away from our computers. Use of the Web makes it harder for us to lock information into our biological memory. The type of reading that the Internet engenders does not inspire or support the cultivation of the literary mind-set. Indeed the effect of the Internet, Carr argues, is to unravel that mind-set where it exists, and prevent its formation where it is absent. It was, after all, unnatural to begin with. The effect of this trend can be clearly perceived: Every day, every hour that we submit to the furtherance of Internet culture, we are creating a new type of civilization. Its schools and offices shall be populated with individuals who lack the mental circuitry required to read beyond a few sentences. These are the students, teachers, entrepreneurs, and leaders of the future.

The postliterate being whom Carr conjures up is a subtle sort of monster. He grows more menacing the longer you stare at him. This creature processes visual signals and forms memories differently from his more book-reliant ancestors. He is incapable of reflection or contemplation and doesn’t care to remember much. He is limited in terms of his capacity for original thought, having spent his entire life tailoring his communications to meet the expectations of an ever-vigilant network of so-called peers. He communicates constantly but only in sparse bursts. He can think with great speed but cannot know anything with certainty. He cannot conceive of hard-won knowledge yet is isolated in his hastily reached convictions. He is quick in every decision. What is perhaps most frightening about the phantom of The Shallows, this ghost of our collective future self, is how much, and how quickly, we have come to resemble him already.


About the Reviewer

Patrick Tucker is the senior editor of THE FUTURIST magazine.

Originally published in THE FUTURIST, July-August 2010


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