The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr

Although it has only been around for a decade or so, the World Wide Web has already lived up to its name.  It would appear that we are all caught in it.  It is hard now to imagine what we would do without such things as email, online shopping, Facebook, and Google.

In this short time, author Nicholas Carr argues, our brains have changed to meet the demands of this new kind of thinking, writing, and reading.  Just as people’s minds changed when other pervasive inventions took hold—discoveries such as the clock, the map, the book, and the typewriter—so our minds have changed in the digital age.

He begins his argument with a very thorough and interesting analysis of what scientists now understand about the plasticity of the brain.  Whereas we once thought of the brain as “hardwired,” we now understand that the actual cells and neural pathways of the brain change depending on the type of activities we engage in.

For example, cab drivers have very highly developed regions in the hippocampus of the brain—the area associated with spatial memory.  Once they begin to make use of global positioning systems, they quickly lose their prodigious abilities. “Use it or lose it” is truly the brain’s motto.

So what are we losing (and/or gaining) as we train ourselves to sort through the vast amount of information so easily accessible on the Web?  Using data from many different studies, Carr demonstrates that our knowledge is broadening but growing more shallow.  In fact, our ability to read deeply and think deeply is compromised by the “technology of distraction” offered by the Web.  While some cognitive functions have improved, such as the ability to sort and scan quickly, studies show that the more we use the Internet, the harder it becomes to follow a long, reasoned argument or a complicated story line.

Carr himself admits that he had to essentially sequester himself from the many distractions of his RSS reader, Twitter account, instant messaging, etc., in order to concentrate long enough to write this book.  He says he has noticed that his brain seems much more than before to need constant novelty, and he has trouble concentrating for more than short periods.

What shall we do?  Carr does not suggest that we throw our computers out the window.  However, he says, we should be aware of what is happening and think about ways to mitigate it.  For example, studies show that time spent in nature help calm and focus the mind.  A quiet mind predisposes us not only to the wisdom that comes from deep thinking, but to empathy, compassion, and other states of mind that are distinctly human.  Maybe we should turn off our computers, take a walk in the park, and think about it!

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