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.
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.