The Wall Street Journal has published a precis of a new book by Nicholas Carr titled The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains. The book is an expansion of a piece Carr wrote in the Atlantic a couple years ago with the provocative title “Is Google Making us Stupid?” Years ago Marshall Mcluhan told us that the medium is the message. It seems that now we are learning that at least some media shape not only the message but the neural circuits of our brains as well. This does not bode well for high-level thought. One researcher Carr quotes concludes that
“every medium develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others.” Our growing use of screen-based media, she said, has strengthened visual-spatial intelligence, which can improve the ability to do jobs that involve keeping track of lots of simultaneous signals, like air traffic control. But that has been accompanied by “new weaknesses in higher-order cognitive processes,” including “abstract vocabulary, mindfulness, reflection, inductive problem solving, critical thinking, and imagination.” We’re becoming, in a word, shallower.
Unfortunately, the ill-effects are not temporary.
It would be one thing if the ill effects went away as soon as we turned off our computers and cellphones. But they don’t. The cellular structure of the human brain, scientists have discovered, adapts readily to the tools we use, including those for finding, storing and sharing information. By changing our habits of mind, each new technology strengthens certain neural pathways and weakens others. The cellular alterations continue to shape the way we think even when we’re not using the technology.
To read serious books, to sustain attention in a world where distractions present themselves on every hand, is no easy task. But perhaps today more than any other time, these skills must be seriously and intentionally cultivated. Carr concludes his piece with these words:
To read a book is to practice an unnatural process of thought. It requires us to place ourselves at what T. S. Eliot, in his poem “Four Quartets,” called “the still point of the turning world.” We have to forge or strengthen the neural links needed to counter our instinctive distractedness, thereby gaining greater control over our attention and our mind.
It is this control, this mental discipline, that we are at risk of losing as we spend ever more time scanning and skimming online. If the slow progression of words across printed pages damped our craving to be inundated by mental stimulation, the Internet indulges it. It returns us to our native state of distractedness, while presenting us with far more distractions than our ancestors ever had to contend with.
The obvious problem is that you are reading this on-line and I am writing this (and read it) on-line as well. Is there a way to enjoy the benefits of the internet while still practicing the art of paying attention? Tocqueville wrote that “the habit of inattention must be considered the greatest vice of the democratic mind.” If Carr’s research is correct, it may be that the internet plays into our greatest vice. The road to virtuous thought–that is excellent thought–appears tenuous indeed.
h/t Les Sillars