Notice:  Reading this entire blog post with full attention might just enhance your cognitive capacity!

I just read Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, which was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize.  I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in how technology might be affecting our minds.  The book is deliciously readable, blending psychological research, personal reflections, and history to make the case that the way we use the internet is reshaping our brains to be less “literary”, thoughtful, meditative, and deep.  In other words, we are in danger of becoming shallow.

I enjoyed the retelling of neurobiological discovery, specifically the incredible story of how we have come to understand the brain’s plasticity, or ability to be physically affected by experience.  The trope “neurons that fire together wire together” is explored in detail; this relays the message that how we use our minds, how we engage with our environment, has lasting consequences for the architecture of our brains.  Carr presents studies that show that reading on the web involves a lot of skimming, clicking, scanning and skipping, as well as being distracted by video, etc., (are you still paying attention?), and that overall this means less deep comprehension.  As we are distracted by links and led down the prodigious tubes of the net, we lose focus.  As software programs “aid” us in various ways, our ability to creatively solve problems on our own may be impaired.  Being wedded to our devices promotes “multitasking”, and numerous studies have shown that multitasking actually means doing worse work and taking more time to do it.  (Switching gears takes time, and losing concentration degrades quality.)  As the internet trains our brains to be distractible, we are rewiring our synapses and losing capacity for depth.  As Eastern psychology also makes its imprint in the Western world, we are noting that the brain has many capacities that require effort and concentration to enhance – but the web might be working against those capacities.

Carr also traces the history of language, from spoken word through the various forms of written word, culminating in the breakthrough of the Gutenberg press. Nietzche, going blind, is able to write again with the help of a typewriter, but he notes that his prose changes with the change in the medium even as he rhapsodizes about his fusion with the device. Other writers similarly point out that their prose, and perhaps their thinking, changes as they switch from longhand to word processors. Still, for Carr, the book, no matter how it is produced, is the ideal immersive experience. 

He is a self-described technophile, though, and gives ample example of the power and utility of websites.  Never before has a writer had the capacity to instantly be within reach of readers around the world.  Good writing will likely tend to go farther than bad, and that’s got to be a boon to the intellectually curious.  However, Carr posits that the literary, meditative, reflective mind is imperiled by the way we often read online (of course, we’ve seen this last week that the unfiltered dissemination of information can have disastrous effects, as four Americans, including the Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, were killed over the YouTube video insulting the Prophet Mohammed).

Carr is far from being a Luddite.  However, he sounds a strong warning bell about the cyberutopians.  Google promises to make all the world’s information instantly accessible – but reducing the world’s books to search engine fodder will undoubtedly degrade them.  Instead of books, we will have snippets.  The phenomenal thoughtfulness that historians such as Robert Caro bring to their work (he still writes in longhand, for example) will be even more rare than it already is.  The information inflammation could leave us alienated from the deeper possibilities of our own mind.  Some tech-enthusiasts proclaim that there is no need to memorize anything when you can look it up almost instantly on the web.  Carr makes the point that our creation of memory is an always engaging and active task that reshapes our ability to think and experience. 

Most of us on the web, with our various devices, are becoming aware of both the potential and perils of technology.  Many of us are finding ways to curtail our time on the internet – unplugging from the internet, email, Facebook, texting, tweeting, etc – for hours, days, or even longer.  We know from other psychological studies that paying attention actually increases happiness.  Experiences and relationships, more than wealth or possessions, also increase happiness.  Do 3000 texts a month (the average for the American teen) enhance either experience or relationship, or simply drive us to distraction?  And does the content of our LCD screen reduce us to the Lowest Common Denominator?

A tech-filled life means that we will have to be more careful choosers of our own mental and emotional destinies.  Or else we’ll sell our souls to the search engine store.

©  2012 Ravi Chandra, M.D. All rights reserved.  

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