What the Internet is doing to our brains

When I first started using the Internet to find information, I noticed that I had a harder time concentrating on what I read on a computer screen than what I read on the page of a book.  I wondered whether the reason was in the Internet or in me.  I wondered whether it was a generational thing, because I did not grow up with the Internet, or a function of old age and the decline of mental power.

Nicholas Carr

After reading The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr, I think I know the answer.  It’s not me.  It’s the Internet.

Scientists have discovered that the human brain literally rewires itself, depending on what mental faculties are used and not used. eurologists have discovered that the brain changes its structure depending on which mental functions are used most extensively.  For example, London taxi drivers, who are required to know the geography of London by heart, have a larger and more fully developed posterior hippocampus, the part of the brain that processes and remembers spatial relations, than most people do; they also have a less developed anterior hippocampus, which might affect their ability to do other kinds of memorization.

Users of the Internet have extensive brain activity in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with decision-making and problem-solving. Book readers have activity in regions of the brain associated with language, memory and visual processing. That’s because of the distracting nature of hypertext, even in the absence of pop-ups, advertisements and other junk. Multitasking is the enemy of concentration.

Tests have shown that reading comprehension is less with hypertext (texts with links to other sources of information) than with plain text.  Even if you ignore the links, the increased demand of decision-making and visual processing, as tiny as it may seem, uses up bandwidth in the brain that would otherwise go to memorizing and thinking about the text.

Likewise, reading comprehension of text plus audiovisual material is less than with text only.  Comprehension of a lecture is less with students allowed to access the Web than those forced to listen to the lecture; maybe this is obvious, but the theory was that students could use Web access to enrich their understanding of the lecture.  Comprehension of a standard CNN broadcast with info-graphics and a news crawl at the bottom of a screen is less than with the same broadcast with those elements removed.

Nicholas Carr writes that the writing of books brought into being a new way of thinking – the focus on a single thing to the exclusion of all else.  This is something that had to be learned.  The human brain evolved when humans were hunters and gatherers, and had to be alert to everything going on around them. The blooming, buzzing confusion of the Internet is more adapted to the nature of the brain than the linear experience of reading.

Nevertheless, according to Carr, the ability to focus on a single thing is the source of human creativity.  It is the source of scientific discovery and artistic creation. The nobler emotions – compassion, love of truth – require more thought than the baser ones – fear, anger. That is why Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims and other religious believers all taught techniques of meditation that make it possible for people to get control of their minds.

The ability to think deeply on any subject requires holding it in short-term memory long enough for the brain to generate proteins and synaptic connections needed to hold it in long-term memory.  The distracting nature of the Internet makes this harder to do.

I have friends who are community college and business college teachers, and they all say that it is all but impossible to assign readings and expect their students to read with close attention and comprehension.  Their brains have already been wired a different way.

Carr does not think it possible or desirable to disconnect from the Internet, nor to I.  Services such as Google are too valuable a source of information to do without.  He continues to be, by his own report, a much heavier user of information media than I am.

I do not intend to give up my on-line activities, much less this web log, but I do intend to make a conscious effort to limit the hours in a day that I devote to them.  I intend to resist the temptation to be on-line all the time. Technology should be a servant and not a master.

Click on I Can Stop Any Time I Want for an earlier post on the same subject.

Click on The Acceleration of Addictiveness for a highly-relevant essay.

Click on Is Google Making Us Stupid? for Nicholas Carr’s statement of his thesis in The Atlantic Monthly.

Click on Rough Type for Nicholas Carr’s web log.

Carr contrasts two things, reading books and reading on-line.  I wish he had reported on hand-on learning, the learning of the skilled crafts worker who uses the eye, the hand and the brain together.  Eric Sevareid, a well-known CBS broadcaster in the 1940s and 1950s, in his autobiography said that by deciding to devote himself to living by the written and spoken word, he cut himself off from “the world of knowing hands.”

My father was not well-read, compared to me, but he could make things with tools, track animals in the woods,  play poker without losing and make accurate judgments of character.  Anybody who knew the two of us judged him to be the wiser man.  That does not mean that I regret my love of books, only that I am aware that book knowledge is not the only kind of knowledge.  All of human life is choices and tradeoffs. The important thing is to make choices for ourselves.

[Added 11/29/10]  Click on Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction for a report on how electronic media affect high school students and their ability to learn.

Tags: , , , , , ,

2 Responses to “What the Internet is doing to our brains”

  1. onepillawayfromchaos Says:

    So this is why I’m having trouble concentrating! Great post!


  2. Angus Says:

    This is fascinating stuff. At least I think it is, I drifted off halfway through and forgot what it was about. I was going to say something I read online about memory storage and memory retrieval but can’t remember what it was.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: