Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Internet and My Brain

When I was a kid I could read nonstop all day long. I became so engrossed in a story that my mother could take me shopping and try clothes on me while, all the time, I had my nose in a book. Not any more. Although I can still focus quite well and be oblivious to my surroundings, I can’t seem to do it as long without a break. And the breaks seem to be pretty frequent, every half hour or so. Maybe it’s age. But after reading The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr, I’m convinced otherwise. All the time I spend at my computer is taking its toll.

Nicholas Carr makes a compelling argument about the perils of increased internet use as a cautionary tale, citing scientific studies for all of his premises. Here’s what he says in a nutshell:

1. The brain is plastic. It changes depending on how it is used.
2. Over the history of mankind the brain has developed different skills at different times and has lost some of the skills it previously had.

For example: Before there were books and writing, memory and recall prevailed. Once writing was available, individual recall and memory became less important but books became very important. Books encouraged the skill of deep reading, necessary for following the thoughts of an author who was practicing deep thinking about a topic.

The internet fosters multitasking and develops an addiction for distraction. Memory or the ability to write well, according to protocols of standard English, is no longer as important.

Carr says: “A personal letter written in, say, the nineteenth century bears little resemblance to a personal e-mail or text message written today. Our indulgence in the pleasures of informality and immediacy has led to a narrowing of expressiveness and a loss of eloquence.” ;-)

3. The internet makes all media available at all times through single devices. The genie is out of the bottle. But it may come at a huge price.

Carr says: “The Net grants us instant access to a library of information unprecedented in its size and scope, and it make it easy for us to sort through that library—to find, if not exactly what we were looking for, at least something sufficient for our immediate purposes. What the Net diminishes is ….. the ability to know, in depth, a subject for ourselves, to construct within our own minds the rich and idiosyncratic set of connections that give rise to a singular intelligence.”

4. At first people thought that the Internet would foster learning through hyperlinks. But they were wrong. Carr says: “Many studies comparing straight reading to reading the same material with hyperlinks have shown over and over again that more is retained by straight reading. Links get in the way of learning.” (Note the absence of hyperlinks in this post.)

Students who had access to the internet while at a lecture, even if some of the sites visited during the lecture were on the same topic, retained less of the lecture than students who just listened. The human brain seems to be hard-wired to respond to distraction—probably a survival skill from the prehistoric days of hunting and gathering when paying attention to the unexpected had real survival value. It is the ability to focus and think deeply that must be cultivated and practiced. (Hence the danger implied by the title "The Shallows.")

Carr is afraid that what may be sacrificed in attributing too much power to this tool is the kind of thinking that is most human: the calm attentive mind, empathy and compassion.

This makes me think that, more than ever, in order to educate our kids, they must read about the real world through the stories and points-of-view of the best thinkers and writers available to them. They must read books that embody coherent thought, not snippets of information patched together without any conceptual framework. Let’s hope that enough people understand this before it is too late.

Personally, I’m glad I still have enough of those old-fashioned literacy skills left in me to read and absorb the brilliant thinking of Nicholas Carr. Gotta go, my email just dinged.


jan godown annino said...

A similar statement is from Maryanne Wolf, a leading researcher in reading, who I much appreciated when she engaged parents recently at Tufts University. She said that she had watched in herself a loss in her capacity to read the difficult texts, the ones that she had thrilled to read and dissect in college. But with time & determination, she deliberately regained that skill.
But - look how we are reading this quite-super -to- know post. How to push away from this Wonderful World of the big interweb ? I go now. To travel.

Many thanks for this post today.

Linda Zajac said...

Excellent post. I've noticed a loss in retention when I try and take photographs during a lecture or talk so I can imagine surfing the web would increase that loss in content. I've also found some news websites to be so stuffed with info they seem overwhelming. I'm not so sure I'm ready to ditch the hyperlinks though, but maybe curb excessive usage.

Deborah Heiligman said...

My husband read his book and thought it was terrific. We have been talking about this a lot. (When I'm not distracted by scrabble on my iphone.) I hope to go to hear Nicholas Carr talk in NY next week. Here's the link(I hope) for those of you in or near NYC:

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Loved the thinking behind this post. Yes, I've most certainly fried my brain cells via all the distractions flooding my computer and every other tech device in reach. See these abbreviated sentences?? (But if I lived in NYC, Deb's link would be one distraction worth plugging into.)

Jan Greenberg said...

Vicki, We all spend way too much time on e mail. But thank goodness you're usually online and can answer my often ridiculous questions!!!! I really appreciate your continuous generosity to your technologically (is that a word?) limited internet pals.