I’m going to make this a fairly brief review because I want to get off the Internet before my brain changes any more. Just kidding. Sort of.
Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brains is better than most books of this sort in that it’s not technophobic.
Carr simply observes what has happened to his own brain and attempts to draw conclusions. I find the conclusions persuasive when weighed against my own experiences.
The tool, not the content
This book is largely a refutation of the idea that the content of a new medium is what changes us. Rather, Carr says that each new medium changes us through the new parameters and processes it introduces into our lives.
For instance, when Nietzsche’s vision was failing, he began typing with a “writing ball,” which was essentially a round typewriter. It allowed him to continue writing with his eyes shut.
In correspondence with a friend, he states that the act of typing was changing the way he wrote, making the sentences (and his thoughts) more staccato in nature.
The Shallows is full of examples like this, but this was my favorite that doesn’t involve the present.
The brain – plastic but not elastic
The brain can be changed. The neural pathways that are responsible for many of the connections that our brains are capable of making– channels referred to as “valid paths” in Chapter 2–can be molded through the information that flows through them.
I’ve seen this. Much of my own success in Tourette’s has relied on the brain’s plasticity–meaning it can be molded.
But it’s not elastic. Meaning, once the channels have been grooved by a particular activity, say, heavy, click-happy Internet usage, those channels won’t snap back to the shapes or structures of spacings that made “deep” engagement with a book easy.
A piece of neuro-plastic, not a neuro-rubber band.
Cognitive load analogy
I have a much harder time getting through books than I used to. This started in 2006 when I spent more time online than ever as I was performing an online Master’s degree in Information Science.
After the year was over, I found that now that I could go back to pleasure reading, it took more effort than it felt like it should.
Carr gives an analogy that makes a lot of sense to me in light of this.
I’m paraphrasing, but here’s the gist:
“Short term memory” is like a post it note.
“Working memory” is like the filing system the notes go in.
Our ability to make successful connections–like analytical thinking or being able to pursue and untangle complicated arguments–and retain information has much to do with how well we can move the post its into the filing cabinets.
In Carr’s analogy, this is the process of filling a bathtub with a thimble. While reading a long book, the water (information) is dripped out slowly and steadily, but we can stay on top of the flow.
While learning on the web, we’re trying to fill the thimble from a billion faucets, all turned on full blast. This is too much “cognitive load” for us to absorb as effectively, a scatter-shot process that literally changes our brains.
For all the worrying and wondering, Carr also states that he wouldn’t want to go back to his life without the web. The good currently outweighs any potential negatives.
I’m in the same boat. And it’s harder for me to concentrate on books. And I feel like my attention span is slipping away. And I’m not sure how much I care about it.
What say ye? Does any of this resonate? If so, any interest in changing your brain back at the expense of less Web time?