The Shallows

Is the Internet making us intellectually shallow?

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    The Shallows:
    What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
    By Nicholas Carr
    W.W. Norton
    276 pp., $26.95
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I sit down at the computer to work, but after two minutes my e-mail in-box pings. Two new messages! I read them, write quick replies, and get back to work. But then I check ESPN.com to see how the Cardinals did yesterday, and then I decide to open a Pandora station. I return to my work, but three minutes later I check on the stock market and then skim headlines on Google News. I work for another minute, and then...

I’m not complaining – not entirely. I like getting information and getting it fast. But I think I’m losing something, too – concentration, focus, and patience. Do you know what I mean?

In The Shallows, technology writer Nicholas Carr offers a measured but alarming answer. He concludes that the Internet is changing not only what we think about (gossip, up-to-the-minute news) but how we think. “Media ... supply the stuff of thought,” he writes, and “also shape the process of thought.”

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Scientists have studied this change by examining neural pathways in the brain. They have concluded, says Carr, that “virtually all of our neural circuits – whether they’re involved in feeling, seeing, hearing, moving, thinking, learning, perceiving, or remembering – are subject to change.” The Internet, along with cellphones and television, is changing our brains, these scientists conclude.

Carr examines various historical advances in communication – from standardized writing to the printing press – to show how they, too, changed us. For example, literate people can better understand language, process visual signals, reason, and memorize than can illiterates. Furthermore, different languages produce different kinds of thinkers. For example, studies show English readers develop the part of the brain associated with deciphering visual shapes more than do Italians, probably because English words often look different from the way they sound, whereas Italian words are spelled just the way they are spoken.

Consider how different correspondence by letter is from text messaging or e-mailing. One arrives slowly; the other is immediate. One is developed in large, sometimes complex, paragraphs; the other is often composed of single sentences. As a result, says Carr, “our indulgence in the pleasures of informality and immediacy has led to a narrowing of expressiveness and a loss of eloquence.”

Also consider the difference between the book and the Web page. It requires concentration and commitment from the reader to tackle Orwell or Shakespeare. But the Internet is just the opposite, Carr notes. “When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and cursory learning.”

Hyperlinks, for instance, provide a choice: Should I keep reading or follow the link elsewhere? This choice reroutes our thoughts, forcing us to pause for a moment to evaluate the options. Every time we encounter a hyperlink (or, for that matter, other links, advertisements, or pop-ups), our thought makes an extra turn. Not surprising, then, are the results of an experiment showing that people who read text littered with hyperlinks comprehended and remembered far less than people who read the same text without links.

German researchers concluded that the average Internet user spends 10 seconds or less on a Web page. Researcher Jakob Neilson used more than 200 tiny cameras to trace human eye movement across Web pages, and found that people generally move in an “F” shape, reading across the top and then skipping down a bit to skim a bit more. When asked, “How do users read on the Web?” Neilson replied, “They don’t.”

Patricia Greenfield wrote in Science magazine that the Internet has led to the “widespread and sophisticated development of visual-spatial skills,” such as rotating objects in our minds and judging distances. But with “our new spatial intelligence” comes a reduction in “deep processing” that supports “mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection.”

Carr brilliantly brings together numerous studies and experiments to support this astounding argument: “With the exception of alphabets and number systems, the Net may well be the single most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use.”

Socrates once warned that writing would “implant forgetfulness,” providing “a recipe not for memory, but for reminder.” Maybe Socrates wasn’t wrong, just ahead of his time. What would he say about the Internet?

Will Buchanan is a former Monitor intern.

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