I recently finished reading the new book by Nicholas Carr called “The Shallows“. The premise of the book is that technology used to carry information has important implications for how our brains evolve over time. Watching television news coverage utilizes different parts of our brain than reading a newspaper, and although the information may be similar, the way it is absorbed and processed is different.
The Internet is profoundly different from virtually every other previous technology for a couple reasons:
- it has hyperlinked text, making it easy to move from one area to another
- it has a vast, almost unlimited, amount of information available on demand via powerful search engines like Google
When you also add in the ability for two-way communication, blurring the lines between producers and consumers, you have a profoundly new broadcast mechanism. There is of course not profound and there is of course much to celebrate in these technologies. The ability to quickly locate virtually any piece of information instantly has made research easier and faster. The ability to communicate with anyone in the world brings families and friends closer together.
But each of these technologies has downsides, and Mr Carr explores them in depth and discusses how their use, or more precisely, their overuse, can lead to changes in the physiology of our brains.
His main point is that the vast quantity of information, parceled over web pages, and read quickly and primarily on computer screens, leads to a shift in learning patterns. We move from reading longer passages in a linear fashion over to searching, and then quickly scanning web pages. Mr Carr provides evidence that this activity causes the parts of our brain responsible for filtering and scanning to be strengthened, while the parts of our brain responsible for deep reading and comprehension are weakened.
Short term memory can hold only a handful of items at any one time. In order to transfer that knowledge into long term memory, the human brain needs some time to process it, place it into a larger framework of relevance, and then process it. Mr Carr argues that searching and scanning, the predominant form of reading while web browsing, is not conducive to the transfer of knowledge into long term storage, nor of its true comprehension. In this model, we simply search for information when we need it, and trust that when we need it again, Google will be there for us. We quickly scan it, decide which pieces are important to us at the moment and use them. If we find a link that seems interesting, we follow it, sending us down another pathway, causing the place we just were to slide out of our short term view. Essentially, we use the Internet as a form of massive, virtual short term memory, like a little window cut into a piece of paper and being run over the pool of knowledge. At any one time, we see only the pieces of information behind that little window, but not how they might fit together into a larger cohesive framework of knowledge. For this we need the long term memory and deep thinking, and these are what become weak when we don’t give our brains an opportunity to absorb information at a more relaxed pace.
So does the Internet make us dumb? I don’t think so, but it does change our behaviors. I can certainly attest to finding it harder to focus, especially when I am in front of a computer. There is something about a book that invites you in, asks you to close the door and allows you to forget about the rest of the world. There is something entirely the opposite about an open web browser – it beckons you to go far and wide on a virtual safari. Each is a very different type of activity, and there is value in both. I sensed this before and knew something was going amiss, but reading this book has made me put down the computer and read more books, and it’s hard to argue with that.
Next time I’ll talk about some software I’ve found to help improve the web browsing experience when you actually want to slow your brain down for a bit and allow some of that information to be converted into actual knowledge.