Archive for the ‘Cognitive Models’ Category

Does Surfing the Net Change How We Think?

June 17, 2010

It does, claims Nicholas Carr, in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains (Norton, 2010).  Expanding his famous 2008 Atlantic piece, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” Carr delivers a measured but disturbing conclusion regarding the effect of long-term internet use: the brain’s cognitive activity is re-routed to skim, rather than to read deeply.

He opens with a confession that may sound familiar, especially to those of us who find increased resistance to deep-reading, either in the classroom or in our own work:

Over the last few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory.  My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing.  I’m not thinking the way I used to think.  I feel it most strongly when I’m reading.  I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article.  My mind would get caught up in the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose.  That’s rarely the case anymore.  Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two.  I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. . . the deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle (5-6)

Tellingly, Carr became unwired to write the book: he put his blog, Rough Type, on hold, moved from Boston to Colorado, and limited his social networking, including e-mail.  The Shallows appeared a year and a half later.

The Shallows probes how the Internet transforms cognitive activity by repeatedly “seiz[ing] our attention only to scatter it” (118).  The plasticity of the adult brain means that its circuitry adapts to the repeated pattern of having its attention splintered by competing demands from ads, e-mail, list-serves, hyperlinks, Twitter, Facebook, and the infinite possibilities of a Google search.

The brain’s plasticity can be positive.  For example, the area of the sensory cortext that processes signals from the left hand is larger in right-handed violinists than it is in right-handed non-violinists.  As violinists practice, the stimulation from their left hand physically changes the shape of their brain.  Similarly, victims of brain injury or illness can often use the brain’s adaptability to compensate for injury.  Even the neurons of sea slugs change, both biochemically and anatomically, in response to cognitive stimuli.

But neuroplasticity has a downside, too.  The “repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive” cognitive stimuli delivered by the internet “have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions” (116).  As Carr puts in the May 24 issue of Wired,

When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning.  Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain.

Catering to the brain’s hunger for information and novelty, the internet provides an environment of  “constant distractedness”  (119).   Repeated heavy use of the Net has, as another neurologist, Michael Merzenich, notes, “neurological consequences” (120).  The time we spend on the internet is time away from reading linearly-driven narratives requiring concentration.  The disused neurons and synapses once dedicated to deep reading get recycled into the work of distracted skimming.  Carr concurs with Maryann Wolf’s conclusion that as we read online

we sacrifice the facility that makes deep reading possible.  We revert to being ‘mere decoders of information.’  Our ability to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction remains largely disengaged (122).

Michael Merzenich puts this more strongly, arguing that internet multitasking may be “deadly” for our intellectual lives (142).

Repeated internet use results in what Carr calls  “The Juggler’s Brain,” the title of a chapter that should be mandatory reading for all teachers.   Study after study is cited demonstrating that multitasking interferes with memory.  A Cornell study reveals that students typing on a laptop during a lecture perform more poorly on tests of the lecture’s content than students without laptops—even when the web pages visited pertain to the material discussed.

Similarly, a Kansas State study notes that students watching a CNN broadcast loaded with color graphics and a “textual news crawl” remembered less about the broadcast’s content than students who were given the the same program stripped of the graphics and news crawl.  This information might be useful the next time someone discusses multimedia teaching techniques.  And when a printed text becomes a hypertext, as it does on Kindle, comprehension is, studies suggest, compromised.

Carr’s most interesting chapter may be on memory.  He distinguishes between “primary memories,” which vanish soon after they come into being, and “secondary memories,” which can be recalled indefinitely.  When a boxer gets knocked out, his recent memories disappear, suggesting that it takes time for a “primary memory” to become a “secondary memory.”

Short-term memories don’t become long-term memories immediately, and the process of their consolidation is delicate. Any disruption, whether a jab to the head or a simple distraction, can sweep the nascent memories from the mind.  (184)

So while surfing the Net can yield a giddy confluence of ideas and connections, few of those connections are actually retained because the Net’s distractions interrupt their migration into secondary memory.  While computer memory is a database, pure and simple, human memory relies on processing information: “Biological memory is alive.  Computer memory is not” (192).

Behind all of this is a concern for deep reading, which is currently dividing the humanities and widely discussed by the media.  Recently, both  Stanley Fish and David Brooks argued for the need for deep reading in the humanities to cultivate wisdom.  A week earlier, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a story about Stanford University’s Literature Lab, which features data-mining that allows students to “read” 1200 novels for one class.  Clearly, the latter kind of reading differs from the kind called for by Fish and Brooks.

As we consider the new kinds of reading made possible by the internet, including important practical questions, such as Laura Rosenthal’s recent query on The Long Eighteenth regarding how to read a long book in a screen-based medium like ECCO, we would do well to imitate Carr by remaining open to both old and new technologies.  An engaged Net surfer, with a clear understanding of the merits of being plugged in, Carr easily cites poetry and literary anecdotes that reflect his immersion in the world of printed texts.   That he is fully aware of the many advantages the Net offers makes his warnings about the erosion of concentration among internet surfers all the more alarming.  Intrepid internet boosters, like Clay Shirky, downplay the value of printed books as “just a side-effect of living in an environment of impoverished access.”  Shirky famously dismissed Tolstoy’s War and Peace as “too long, and not so interesting” (Carr, 111).  Carr eschews such extreme positions.  Though he put his blog on hold to complete his book, he has now returned to it.  He is not urging that we ban use of the internet.  But he provides extensive evidence for the need to be mindful of the internet’s transformative effects on our cognitive life.


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