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Are iPads, smartphones, and the Mobile Web rewiring the way we think?

Multitasking on smartphones, iPads, and the Mobile Web makes some feel smarter and others just more scattered. Is it changing how we think?

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Mr. Carr's book, "The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains," is currently bearing the standard for the techno-worried. In it, he begins by telling of his own trouble in reading at length and thinking as deeply as he once could. After some research he concludes that too much time online is not only changing the way his brain works, but everyone else's, too. "The possibility that we're altering some basic things about the way we think without carefully weighing the consequences is troubling," he says. "However important it is to connect quickly with others and exchange messages, there is also a crucial role for solitary thought in our intellectual lives. And we seem to be rushing to dismiss the importance of solitary thought."

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His plaintive cry: I want my old brain back.

"As we practice these very busy modes of skimming and juggling tasks, we think we're being productive and, you know, sometimes it can be quite entertaining and quite fulfilling," he says in a Monitor interview. "But what I don't think we fully realize is that we're altering in a deep way our ability to pay attention, our ability to be contemplative, to be reflective – the things that we might be losing."

Carr, a gifted writer admired for his ability to examine and explain the effects of technology on society, is hardly alone. Others, including scholars and scientists, are asking the same troubling questions, especially about the young "digital generation" whose members are growing up in their own screen-filled worlds.

"The brain of a child who is immersed in six to seven hours of digitally dominated media daily and reads only a little off-line will have differences from a child immersed only in books and who learns to attend, concentrate, and think about what he or she reads," writes Maryanne Wolf, a professor of child development who directs the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. "The problem with much of our digital media is that they engage attention quickly and then engage again and again. Children are constantly moving to the next piece of information.... My worry is that children are becoming wonderfully engaged with the superficial levels of information but unaware of the need to probe and think for themselves."

Nora Volkow, a brain researcher and director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, agrees: "The technology is rewiring our brains."

A two-class society may develop, with a mostly younger generation who are "the people of the screen" and a mostly older generation who are "the people of the book" – with two quite different ways of understanding the world, theorizes British neuroscientist Susan Greenfield.

"At the beginning of the 21st Century, we may be standing on the brink of a mind-makeover more cataclysmic than anything in our history," she wrote in 2006. "The science and technology that is already becoming central to our lives will soon come to transform not just the way we spend each day, but the way we think and feel."

Humor essayist Garrison Keillor recently summed up the generational difference this way. "[O]ur children are writing up a storm, often combining letters and numerals (U R 2 1derful), blogging like crazy, reading for hours off their little screens, surfing around from Henry James to Jesse James to the epistle of James to pajamas to Obama to Alabama to Alanon to non-sequiturs, sequins, penguins, penal institutions...," he mused in a New York Times essay. A young mind today won't stay focused on any one thing, "like a hummingbird in an endless meadow of flowers," he writes.

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