Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains / Nicholas Carr -- NY: W.W. Norton, 2010

Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains is a thoughtful examination of how digital communication technology might inexorably be changing fundamental human mental capacities. His argument begins by noting that our brains are not like computer hardware with a fixed, physical configuration that changes only insofar as it naturally degrades. Instead, brain circuitry is part of a living, changing organism, that is reconfigured by use and disuse. This phenomenon, known as “neuroplasticity,” is well established in the scientific literature.

Following Marshall MacLuhan’s thesis in Understanding Media, Carr argues that the medium that transmits information more profoundly affects our lived experience than the information content that it transmits. As cases in point, Car presents the changes that took place with the advent of typographical spaces between words, the printing press, and finally, the “electric media,” culminating in the internet.

Prior to the printing press, reading and writing was done by a tiny minority of people working as professional scribes. These people became practiced at the careful examination of texts that were written in scriptura continua, i.e., text written without spaces between words. Reading scriptura continua meant that reading was tantamount to solving a puzzle, accomplished by sounding aloud the letters to slowly form the coded message. Consequently, readers became practiced at the careful examination of individual characters and the translation of these symbols into sounds. The assimilation of the meaning was slow and interrupted.

With the advent of spaces between words, words could be quickly recognized as wholes, allowing a text to be read easily, quickly, and silently. According to Carr’s thesis, the shift from reading scriptura continua to reading text with spaces would have caused a significant reconfiguration of the brains of readers, activating and expanding new neurocircuits. It would have reduced certain basic mental capacities while it improved others. As reading became less difficult, readers experienced a state of mind Carr calls “deep reading,” in which readers could become completely engrossed in the content of the text. Reading became a meditative act. This also changed writing in that authors could assume that readers were “attentive” and “deeply engaged both intellectually and emotionally,” thus allowing more complex literary forms.

As the printing press expanded the universe of readers, more and more people developed the mental capacities for deep concentration and sustained attention. Deep reading fostered deeper thinking and the development of more complex mental schemas that foster long-term memory and understanding. With changes to brain circuitry, these capacities could be employed not only when reading, but during other activities.

Of course, all of this changed with the advent of what McLuhan called the “electric media,” which is becoming mature in the internet. This is Carr’s main concern. Unlike the deep reading fostered by books, the internet is fostering short, superficial bursts of reading and viewing. Its designers are seeking to constantly interrupt us and lure us to a new Web site where new content and advertisements can seize our attention briefly before moving us on to the next Web site. We find ourselves scanning information for interesting fragments and multi-tasking because we are lured out of one task before it is complete to begin another. We are not reading in the traditional sense, we are “power browsing.”

Proponents of this new form of information acquisition suggest that the wealth of information now available to us will allow us to make more and various connections between intellectual content and generate novel ideas, but Carr argues that while power browsing may be exhilarating, and may seem to be connecting us quickly to just the information we seek, the gains are ephemeral. Citing research on working memory and long-term memory, he notes that power browsing does not allow us the time to fix the information presented to our working memory in long-term memory. It is out of long-term memory that we construct our conceptual schema that allows us a deep understanding of the world. As a result, power browsing not only diminishes our capacity for sustained concentration, it undermines the sort of intelligence that has been promoted by the literary mind.

Carr's thesis is provocative, but he is at pains not to overstate it. Throughout The Shallows, Carr reminds us that the internet is not only impoverishing specific intellectual powers, it is improving others. For example, experienced Web surfers are able to quickly identify on a Web page the item or fragment of information that they seek. This ability to pick out what is critical in a cluttered visual field is a "bottom-up" brain mechanism that transfers to other contexts just as the "top-down" ability for sustained concentration translates across contexts. Nonetheless, Carr’s sympathies are clearly with deep reading.

Certainly, proponents of the internet will down play what is lost with the decline of deep reading and play up what is gained with the ascent of power browsing, but Carr’s warning is hard to ignore. Neuroplasticity makes our changing reading habits much more significant than one might originally think, and I expect that many people who already have developed the habit of deep reading will recognize the cognitive changes that Carr observes coming from working with electronic media, particularly the internet. Perhaps it is because the assessment of the value of this change is coming from a deep reader, but it certainly seems that something very valuable is being replaced with something terribly, terribly shallow.

It is also interesting to consider Carr's claims in the context of Jaron Lanier's recent book, You Are Not a Gadget (reviewed in this blog). Lanier warns that the internet is increasingly dehumanizing us by reducing us to fragmented content contributors to a vast network of computers. He warns that our very personhood is being reduced to what can be indexed in social networking metadata and presented by Web search engines. "You are not a gadget" is Lanier's rallying cry to resist this dehumanization. Unfortunately, if Carr is right about the restructuring of our brains, one might argue that the internet is, indeed, slowly, but inexorably, turning us into gadgets.


  1. Alan, I read a book on this subject 5-10 years ago and have been searching for it again ever since. Author was a woman, Ph.D.--I don't remember what field. One of the things I remember was that our brains are differently engaged when reading print on a page vs. text on a screen, the key distinction being whether light is reflected or emitted. This was only a small bit of research referenced in the book, which had a lot to do with attention span, ability to follow complex argument and narrative, etc. As you might imagine, this topic is of vital interest to me. I appreciate this post greatly. Thank you.

  2. I remember heaing a lot about research done about the effects of viewing light from television and computer screens versus reflected light. It seems pretty safe to think that viewing light sources as opposed to reflected light would have some significantly different effect if only because fo the intensity of the light. What that would have to do with attention span is a little more puzzling. Perhaps viewing the light source is just more irritating and so one has to look away more often. I don't know.

    What interested me about the Shallows was the effect of interuptions. I must say that I find life a whole lot more chaotic and interupted than in the middle 20th century. I remember calling that an effect of post-modernism. It seems there might be precursors to the "interuption machine" that is the World Wide Web.