The Shallows and What The Internet Is Doing To My Brain

2012 February 8

I recently finished Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, a book I picked up and read over a few stints at Barnes & Noble because the topic caught my eye and it was only 225 pages long. I have to imagine anyone who has spent countless hours on the internet (most likely anyone reading this) would be interested in how their neural circuity has been rewired to handle a bunch of meaningless shit. This book puts forth the conclusion — with plenty of studies to back it up — that the constant distraction of the internet isn’t conducive to long-term memory or particularly deep thinking. There’s even a study mentioned that attempts to quantity the effects on memory of a quiet country setting as opposed to the busy, loud streets of a city — basically the real-world equivalents of reading a book and browsing the internet.

The idea of our brains being rewired to acclimate to the internet probably isn’t a surprise to anyone who can’t go a few minutes without checking their e-mail or Twitter or Facebook or forum of choice. We (I say “we” since I’m one of these people) want everything as quickly as possible and without that constant flow of information we feel disconnected from the world. Even while reading this book, I probably checked my iPod Touch at an average rate of two times a chapter. (Yes, I carry around my iPod Touch because I’m too poor to want to pay $90/mo for an iPhone and I live in the city now and there’s always a hotspot nearby even if I’m not on campus.)

I had already read about a study cited in this book that revealed students did better on a reading comprehension quiz of a short essay when they were given a plain text version (or a paper version, I forget) as opposed to a version filled with hyperlinks. Clicking on a hyperlink has the effect of breaking your concentration and not allowing your brain to absorb the information in its entirety, even if it seems like you’re learning more by reading the content of the hyperlinks. The reason posited for this phenomenon is the limit of the brain for working memory. Possible long-term memory is practically infinite, but such retention is only attained after memories are allowed to be stored in the hippocampus for the required amount of time, which can apparently range from an a few minutes to years.

I was probably most intrigued when Carr went through history and talked about the effects of other technological advances on the workings of the mind. He writes about the invention of the book, the printing press, the clock, the phonograph, etc., citing reactions from prominent scientists and thinkers, and detailing where they were right and where they were wrong. It’s almost strange to think that a transition from handwriting to typewriters could have an effect on the content, tone, and structure of someone’s writing, but there are a few anecdotes mentioned that seem to suggest otherwise; one being that the flow of cursive lends itself to more meandering sentences compared to the staccato of a typewriter.

A theme running through all this discussion of technology and its effects on humanity as a whole and on an individual level is that there’s never any turning back (unless we bomb ourselves to hell, I guess). The internet is only becoming increasingly prominent in our lives and the trend in all likelihood will not reverse. When new forms of media were created, others were never done away with entirely. Newspapers didn’t kill books. Television didn’t kill the radio. The internet hasn’t killed anything yet, but it is the first technology that has been able to absorb and provide practically every form of communication the human race has created. And it has greatly affected every other form of media. Many magazines are now laid out more like webpages and there are television shows like Tosh.0 that live off YouTube clips.

But maybe it’s bullshit to worry about the internet-ization of our brains. It’s not like reading is an activity the human brain is particularly evolved for; a person needs to develop a love of reading, which in turn leads the brain to crave more of a similar stimulus. I feel as if I’ve had to work to get back into reading at length, or even watching full movies at home, but I like to think I’m almost there. And it does feel more satisfying to finish a book or watch a great film than it does to jump around reading blogs or watching 20 minute television show episodes. But is it efficient? When Carr posed this question to some very intelligent people, a number of them said they don’t even read books anymore because it’s just not worth the time and effort when the internet is so easily searchable — just Wikipedia it! Well, you probably indirectly Wikipedia it by googling it first.

I mean Google because there’s an entire chapter of this book dedicated to the search giant. The search giant that has attempted to get its fingers into every inch of the internet and subsequently our lives. They want to know everything and they want everything to be searchable. The ideas of Sergey Brin mentioned in The Shallows point to the idea of a massive internet cloud singularity in the future of humanity. Perhaps this is inevitable, considering the march of technological progress and the willingness of people to upload as much as possible. Just thinking about such a possibility reminds me of “The Last Question” by Isaac Asimov, one of the favorite short stories. Try to read it without being distracted by the rest of the internet.

As written about by Carr, a move toward such a future would be scarier than the idea of our brains just being overloaded with too much data and not developing enough deep knowledge, as it would basically end all individuality. Although the two are linked — if you’re not forming individual thoughts through personal reading and writing, then it’s all external, which basically means the internet going forward. Already, people on the internet group together around similar interests, e.g., politics or sabermetrics, developing thoughts and worldviews alongside each other virtually. Sure, have a predilection for such behavior, but the internet only exacerbates the narrowing of experience. Imagine such an echo chamber effect across the entire human race. Or maybe just watch episode 2 of the British television series Black Mirror.

Related posts:

  1. An Example of Why Scientists May Never Figure Out the Human Brain
  2. The Internet Almost Never Lets Me Down
  3. Proof That The Internet Sucks

  • Cornballer

    Good stuff, and most of that hits pretty close to home for me.  I wonder if he deliberately kept the length short knowing that a lot of people would have skipped it if it weighed in at 400-500 pages?

    • CajoleJuice

      Possibly, but I think he had a tough enough time getting to 200 pages, as he details how he needed to make a conscious effort to unplug in order to write the book.