Nicholas Carr. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010.
Most of us who use the Internet recognize the phenomenon: we click around, check email, check Facebook, find ourselves unable to focus on a task. At best, we find ourselves “multitasking.” At worst, we’re simply unable to concentrate on any task at all. The Internet is a “technology of distraction,” overloading our brains with stimuli.
Drawing on research on “neuroplasticity,” Nicholas Carr argues that this technology actually alters the human brain, creating new circuitry adapted to the rapid-fire, stimulus-rich environment of the Internet. Studies of how people read on the Internet, for example, show that people tend to skim, scanning the page for the salient points. Deep, reflective reading is sacrificed for a rapid and efficient gathering of relevant information. Carr worries that, as our brains are rewired for this kind of shallow reading on the Internet, we will lose the capacity for deep reading and reflection.
He cites other studies that link reflective, slow mental processing with the development of empathy, and he worries that, as we gain speed and efficiency online, we lose some of the qualities that make us human. In interacting so much with machines, we become more like machines ourselves.
Near the end of the book, Carr draws on Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media to observe that “our tools end up ‘numbing’ whatever part of the body they ‘amplify.’” He explains:
When we extend some part of ourselves artificially, we also distance ourselves from the amplified part and its natural functions. When the power loom was invented, weavers could manufacture far more cloth during the course of a workday than they’d been able to make by hand, but they sacrificed some of their manual dexterity, not to mention some of their “feel” for the fabric (210).
The same is true, he argues, of intellectual technologies, such as clocks or maps or the Internet. Clocks changed the perception of time of those who use them, and maps changed the perception of space and place. Carr cites a study of London cabbies, who are required to memorize the names and locations of all of the streets in London. The research shows that a London cab driver’s hippocampus—a central clearinghouse for memory processing in the brain—is unusually large, because of the amount of detailed local knowledge it contains. As most humans became dependent upon maps, such detailed knowledge dried up, and the configuration of the brain changed. The hippocampus became smaller.
Technology, Carr argues, “alienates” us from our environments and from ourselves, allowing us to “outsource” some of our cognitive functions. Quoting a study on the use of “user-friendly” software, for example, Carr argues that sophisticated apps allow us to “‘externalize’ problem solving and other cognitive chores,…[reducing] our brain’s ability ‘to build stable knowledge structures’…that can later ‘be applied to new situations’” (216). As we in Northfield consider putting iPads into the hands of students beginning in fourth grade, we should ask ourselves if we’re actually strengthening transferable problem-solving skills, or simply providing students with an expensive mental prosthesis.
Carr cautions that, as we become more dependent upon computers and the Internet, we should be mindful of what we stand to lose as well as of what we stand to gain. “We shouldn’t allow the glories of technology to blind our inner watchdog to the possibility that we’ve numbed an essential part of our self,” he warns (212).
Carr’s book is wide-ranging and engagingly written, and highly recommended for readers who want to get away from their computer screens and reflect on what the Internet is doing to their brains.