Online Life Rewiring Our Brains

The cover story of the current Atlantic (Monthly) is an interesting piece by Nicholas Carr which asks, Is Google Making Us Stupid? It begins with the standard “the Internet is giving us short attention spans” meme but eventually gives us much more than that.

Google Making Stupid - Atlantic Cover Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

I think I know what’s going on. For more than a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet. The Web has been a godsend to me as a writer. Research that once required days in the stacks or periodical rooms of libraries can now be done in minutes. A few Google searches, some quick clicks on hyperlinks, and I’ve got the telltale fact or pithy quote I was after. Even when I’m not working, I’m as likely as not to be foraging in the Web’s info-thickets—reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines and blog posts, watching videos and listening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to link to link. (Unlike footnotes, to which they’re sometimes likened, hyperlinks don’t merely point to related works; they propel you toward them.)

For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded. “The perfect recall of silicon memory,” Wired’s Clive Thompson has written, “can be an enormous boon to thinking.” But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.


Reading, explains [Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University], is not an instinctive skill for human beings. It’s not etched into our genes the way speech is. We have to teach our minds how to translate the symbolic characters we see into the language we understand. And the media or other technologies we use in learning and practicing the craft of reading play an important part in shaping the neural circuits inside our brains. Experiments demonstrate that readers of ideograms, such as the Chinese, develop a mental circuitry for reading that is very different from the circuitry found in those of us whose written language employs an alphabet. The variations extend across many regions of the brain, including those that govern such essential cognitive functions as memory and the interpretation of visual and auditory stimuli. We can expect as well that the circuits woven by our use of the Net will be different from those woven by our reading of books and other printed works.

Much, much more at the link. It’s worth a read, presuming you have the attention span.

Max Boot and Ross Douthat debate the merits of Carr’s arguments vis-a-vis writing and reading books, with the former emphasizing the Internet’s virtues and the latter the drawbacks. For his part, Matt Yglesias was experiencing the Googlization of his brain but he’s been saved by the gift of Kindle.

My own experience closely mirrors Ezra Klein‘s. I can still sit down with a stack of books as efficiently as before if I’ve got a major research project or book review due. But, increasingly, the Internet is my source of first resort for looking up facts, keeping up with the news, and the like. It’s simply a much more efficient means of accessing current information than combing the stacks at the library.

Moreover, half a decade of blogging has transformed me from a pure consumer of information into a content provider. Increasingly, I’m reading with the major purpose of finding topics to blog about and links and information to share with readers. That naturally leads to more skimming and hopping around than reading simply for the sake of deepening one’s own knowledge. But that was just as true when I went from being a political junkie reading non-fiction for enjoyment to a scholar skimming dozens of books and articles for material to use in my research.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. John Burgess says:

    I spend at least five hours a day on line, but also read at least five books a week. And then there are the news magazines–in both online and paper formats–that I read too.

    My attention span is just fine, thanks for asking, but Google isn’t making my any dumber, only changing where I go for particular types of information.

    There’s still no decent Arabic dictionary online and forget online Arabic –> English translation. So my Arabic dictionaries get quite a workout, too.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    I’ve been posting on this subject for years. Basically, just as people have rewired their brains over the last couple of thousand years for literacy, I suspect that we’re rewiring our brains for graphical communications now.

    The transition from oral to literate had cognitive implications beyond just being able to read and I think we can expect the transition from literate to visual imagery will engender new developments.

    Not all of the news is particularly good. Abstract reasoning, for example, is demonstrably an artifact of literacy.

  3. Brad Stewart says:

    We are definetly rewired. Just think about how much we rely on calculators even for easy and simple math. It is redicluous. I try to read but half the time i end up reading articles online cause there is much more interesting facts online than in a book. Wether they are true or not who knows

  4. Bithead says:

    I wonder if this thing isn’t Atlantic trying to wrap an excuse around it’s dwindling print sales?

  5. James Joyner says:

    Not sure what Atlantic’s sales are but they’ve done a nice job of diversifying online.

  6. Bithead says:

    Me, either, actually, but you get the point. I’m going to jump off on this thing, just a bit, James;

    My own experience closely mirrors Ezra Klein’s. I can still sit down with a stack of books as efficiently before if I’ve got a major research project or book review due. But, increasingly, the Internet is my source of first resort for looking up facts, keeping up with the news, and the like. It’s simply a much more efficient means of accessing current information than combing the stacks at the library.

    Indeed. Add to that the idea that it offers a number of sources of information that you’d likely not have considered even looking at, were you restricted to the printed page. And therein lies something which I think goes missing from a lot of these “woe is the human race, nobody reads books anymore” memed bits… We’re actually getting smarter than books ever allowed us to.

    Look, I admit there is a certain art level in doing the kind of book-based research that you describe, James… an art that is disappearing, certainly, and I can see where some would see a loss in that. It takes a fair amount of smarts to do research in that fashion.

    But Think: What is the purpose of the book? What is the purpose of the printed page? It is to impart information. We humans have evolved our information gathering and dissemination ability to the next level. I refuse to see this as a bad thing.

    As an example of the way things are going; I have an entire wall of my home office covered with various computer publications. A glance through their titles suggests that there is no realm more affected by time, then the realm of technology. Books I spent literally hundreds for, just a few short years ago, “Lantastic 5.0”, a complete collection of Novell networking and training books, for versions 3 through 5. MCSA books for WinNT and 2000, The inner workings of DOS 6, and so on. PASCAL cookbooks.

    A collection of books written by James Martin for the Bell labs is particularly amusing in that way: “Systems Analysis for data transmission”, “Telecommunications and the computer”, and Transmission systems for communications. While very technical, and while very good at passing along basic theory, Martin’s books were a primer on getting data and digital connectivity in an analogue world.

    All these books, on the open market are nigh on worthless, today. I keep them as a reminder of how quickly such investments sour. They stand as mute proof that things in the technological world have been changing so quickly as to make the printed word not only worthless, but six months away from publication, counter-productive for being woefully outdated.

    Don’t misunderstand; I don’t see books as a bad thing. But if the single most efficient way of obtaining information and spreading it around, is what you’re after, the printed word ain’t it anymore, sorry.

    In reading the Atlantic article the tone of the thing kept leaping out at me… print media’s dying because we’re all a bunch of idiots. Such arguments have certainly graced the pages of other publications, previously. The New York Times, for example, used it recently in an attempt to explain it’s ever tighter drain circling of late.

    I dunno… chalk my response up to my usual level of misanthropy, I suppose. But I’ve seen this kind of article come out before and have found myself unmoved to accept the overall breast- beating tone.

  7. SJ Reidhead says:

    I don’t know about you, but as I “grow” as a writer, I find I have do not have the patience for writers who aren’t all that good. I’m a darn good writer. I’ve come to expect a certain standard in the printed word – and don’t seem to be getting it.

    I am constantly putting down a book that isn’t that good. Is it an effect of the time I spend online? I don’t think so. When I do get a good piece of fiction that I truly like, I’ll be up all night reading it – can’t put it down, just like the pre-online days. The problem to me is finding said fiction.

    Once upon a time I would go by my local newstand (Clemson, SC) on a weekly basis. Rarely did I leave without at least 2-3 murder mysteries or decent science fiction. I’ve not read a decent mystery in months. Once in awhile I pick up a half-way decent piece of sci fi or horror, but not often. Nonfiction seems to be easier to find.

    Maybe we are just better writers now and don’t have the patience for ‘junk’ we once had.

    The Pink Flamingo