Reading this short blog post – or worse, simply skimming it so that you can justify RT-ing it – may cause real damage to your brain. At least according to Nicholas Carr, whose provocative Atlantic article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” has been expanded into a just released book titled The Shallows.
In his new treatise Carr claims that as we twiddle on Twitter and diddle on Facebook, absorbed in repetitive and addictive activities, our brains are getting rewired. And not for the better.
Because the Internet encourages and reinforces “cursory reading, hurried and disparate thinking and worse, superficial learning,” it significantly diminishes our capacity for sustained concentration, deep thinking, and long-term memory.
To make his point Carr cites his own vanishing attention span, recent neuroscience findings, and an undeniable study of academic research that shows scholars are taking the easy way out when it comes to citing sources. They apparently do what we all do: search Google and use whatever comes up at the top. “We live in a world of abundance but all read the same thing,” concludes Carr.
He offers more of his opinion in a column in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal.
The picture emerging from the research is deeply troubling, at least to anyone who values the depth, rather than just the velocity, of human thought. People who read text studded with links, the studies show, comprehend less than those who read traditional linear text. People who watch busy multimedia presentations remember less than those who take in information in a more sedate and focused manner. People who are continually distracted by emails, alerts and other messages understand less than those who are able to concentrate. And people who juggle many tasks are less creative and less productive than those who do one thing at a time.
He argues for the deeper reflection and exercises that give us greater control over our attention.
Reading a long sequence of pages helps us develop a rare kind of mental discipline. The innate bias of the human brain, after all, is to be distracted. Our predisposition is to be aware of as much of what’s going on around us as possible. Our fast-paced, reflexive shifts in focus were once crucial to our survival. They reduced the odds that a predator would take us by surprise or that we’d overlook a nearby source of food.
However, in his New York Times review today, Jonah Lehrer isn’t totally convinced. The author of How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist (both of which I highly recommend you read; good ways to up your concentration) reminds us that change in media habits and technology has always brought criticism. Socrates lamented books for creating a “forgetfulness of the soul”; telegrams were initially condemned for their pelting speed; radio and television poisoned our minds.
Lehrer, himself a highly regarded neuroscientist, further enlightens us to the fact that everything changes the brain. Countering Carr’s claims he points to other studies that conclude the Internet makes us smarter. They’ve shown that gaming improves our performance in cognitive tasks and that searching on Google, by forcing our selective attention and deliberate analysis, leads to increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.
Clay Shirky (how can we have this discussion without Clay weighing in) offered his thoughts in a counter essay to Carr yesterday. Shirky reminds us that returning to the pre-Internet era of the 1980s, isn’t all that desirable. During that decade “we actually spent a lot more time watching Diff’rent Strokes than reading Proust.”
Shirky also reminds us that the mindless nonsense populating much of the web will give way to more thoughtful and meaningful content:
Of course, not everything people care about is a high-minded project. Whenever media become more abundant, average quality falls quickly, while new institutional models for quality arise slowly. Today we have The World’s Funniest Home Videos running 24/7 on YouTube, while the potentially world-changing uses of cognitive surplus are still early and special cases.
He goes on:
The response to distraction, then as now, was social structure. Reading is an unnatural act; we are no more evolved to read books than we are to use computers. Literate societies become literate by investing extraordinary resources, every year, training children to read. Now it’s our turn to figure out what response we need to shape our use of digital tools.
I guess I’m with Lehrer and Shirky. True, the more time I spend online, the less time I spend reading lengthy narratives, committing the ideas within them to memory, and thinking critically about their meaning.
But consider that I discovered Nicholas Carr’s new book online. My search led me to multiple reviews, to Cory Doctorow’s essay on Writing in an Age of Distraction, and to the Clay Shirky/Nicholas Carr debate in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal.
This two-hour exercise inspired this post, enabled me to synthesize and organize links and sources (sorry if they distract you) and left me with a number of pieces to read, review and think about once I’m done writing this.
I think I’ll go offline now and concentrate on something really important. Your thoughts? Please share. And if you got this far, feel good about it. You actually concentrated on something.
Want to read up and think on your own? Here are some links.
Is Technology Producing A Decline In Critical Thinking And Analysis? by Patricia Greenfield
Paper Cuts: Stray Questions for Nicholas Carr