Book Review: The Shallows – What The Internet is Doing To Our Brains

the shallows Nicholas CarrDunces,

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?


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One thought on “Book Review: The Shallows – What The Internet is Doing To Our Brains

  1. So many fascinating points to comment on, I hardly know where to begin.

    Two disclaimers:

    (1) I am a bit of a technophobe. I kind of hate a lot of “modern conveniences.” I miss the days of corded phones and trips to the library and, you know, actual human interaction. I know, I know, closed-minded and change-fearing and antiquated, anti-modern poppycock.

    (2) I haven’t read the book. Yet.

    At the risk of sounding like an old man, I think a lot of modern technology (internet et al.) is turning us, as a society, into instant-gratification-demanding crazy people. During the course of my specific lifetime, we have gone from no one but Al Gore knowing what the internet was, to walking all the way to a computer lab on campus for this new thing they call “electronic-mail,” to personal computers with dial-up internet in every home, to 5 year olds having “smart” phones with high-speed internet access on their persons 24/7.

    Do I use the internet? Yes. I think it’s fascinating, and convenient, and just like everybody else, I love the unfathomably vast amount of knowledge and entertainment available at my fingertips in a mere instant. But at what cost?

    People used to read books. People used to know how to read maps. Know how to talk to people politely on the phone. Know how to interact with each other as human beings on a personal, fulfilling level.

    The thing everyone advocates about technology is how much time it saves. And sure, we’ve come a long way. It used to take like 20 minutes from the time you sat down at your computer to actually getting on line (you remember the “You’ve Got Mail” days? And AOL? And that annoying “dial up” screeching sound your computer used to make?) But what are we doing with that extra time? Nothing. The faster our computers go, the more mindless, often cheap and sensational entertainment we consume.

    And the faster things go, the less patient we get. It seriously used to take 10 or 15 or 20 minutes to download a single picture (and don’t even get me started on music). But it used to fill us with such wonder that you could even get free music from a website, that we would just patiently wait. But now, anything slower than instantaneous is absolutely unacceptable. Pretty soon, if our computers don’t start reading our minds, and doing what we want to before we can even ask them to, people are going to start rioting in the streets.

    I like the part you mention about Nietszche. I find that my writing changes, in style and content, depending on whether I am handwriting with a pen or typing, and even whether I am typing into a word-processing program or on a blog. My favorite form of writing is in e-mail format. Maybe I should just start e-mailing segments of the book I have been working on to myself.

    Plastic, but not elastic. I can see that. We’ve gotten used to consuming information very rapidly, in clips and soundbytes, constantly changing, learning, consuming. That would take some time to un-learn. But I think it could be done.

    I still enjoy reading more than just about anything else. Actual books, that I can hold and smell and mark and feel. Maybe that’s because I have resisted, at least to some extent, technology’s siren song. I don’t have a cell phone with internet access or a data plan. I actually HATE cell phones. Why do we feel like we HAVE TO have them? HAVE TO be connected? All the time? Like the world will stop if we can’t be contacted immediately while going out to lunch, taking a walk, taking a nap, whatever.

    I enjoy e-mail. It is convenient. But I used to write letters. A lot of letters. Like actual, lick-the-envelope, put a stamp on it and walk to the mailbox letters. And I used to get letters in return. It took a lot longer, but I loved the waiting, in a way. Loved the anticipation. Seeing a “(1)” in your e-mail inbox is exciting too, but an actual letter in the mailbox from someone you care about, there is nothing better.

    We’ve forgotten how to be patient; we’ve forgotten how to sit still.

    Unlike Carr, I do miss the way things used to be, and much of me really would like to go back. It seems like the faster we go, the faster we can go, and the more that is expected. With all the “free time” that technology creates, why does it feel like life is faster and more demanding than ever?

    I know, you probably think that I’m not adequately considering how different things used to be. But I don’t think so. I miss people. I miss time. I miss waiting. Part of me really does wish I could just step out of the whole rat race, throw my cell phone in a lake, flush my watch down the toilet, and just walk out into the world with nothing but my thoughts and a notebook and pen and a mind ready interact with other minds and embrace “real” life outside of cyberspace.

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