When I was in the navy, my ship went to Hong Kong for recreation. While there, many of the crew visited tailors to get custom made clothes. Clothing, you see, is the opportunity to outfit yourself according to taste, needs, and occasion. But who thinks of the brain as that manageable and flexible in deciding how to use it? Up until two summers ago, it never occurred to me that the brain is anything but a static entity. My oldest son, Carson, is in a book club in Boone, NC where he lives, and he had been reading about the neuroplasticity of the brain. He explained to me, for example, that when someone goes blind, the part of the brain used for seeing does not lie vacant with a fixed boundary resisting takeover by other senses. New needs lead other parts of the brain to take over the area no longer in use as it was. This was startling but creative to consider.
I thought, “Yeah yeah,” this sounds like a fuddy-duddy fear and shrinking from the vast and beautiful world of the Internet and its accessibility to information never available before in history with ease and copiousness. However, the book—though terribly concerned about humans losing touch with deep thinking and reflective analysis that comes from reading long passages of print-only prose—does challenge the present digital age to at least be aware of dangers leading to altered brain capacities. This is fair, just like before getting a driver’s license, the candidate must learn the defensive side of driving in order to get that license. This is why Carr’s book is an ideal text for everyone in education.
So what is that Carr is so alarmed about? Though he develops a wide range of points with a tremendous body of evidence from research, I will focus on two of his themes. First, the brain is a wondrous organ that actually changes its physical patterns of operations according to the needs for which it is called upon. It will “rewire” itself to fit what you ask it to do. Second, Carr sets forth evidence to show that reading on a screen is not the same as reading a printed text. On-screen texts have so many options for clicking that even if the reader foregoes all those options, the brain is still experiences interruptions and thus repeated “distractions” in order to refuse those options and follow the text on screen.
The Internet is fabulous for finding information, and Carr unequivocally celebrates that, but his point is that reading on screen is most often not geared to what one needs for real concentration. What makes the Internet free is the search engine’s ability to stimulate options related to convenience and commerce. With convenience, clicking on related links or on visual or audio enhancements, the increase in sensory stimulation comes at the expense of deep, reflective reading. Regarding commerce, the search engine most likely is not sponsored directly, but the bombardment of commercials and visual stimuli detract from the experience that comes from simply reading a long piece of written material and following its logic.
But not only does screen reading become a series of constant shifting from one stimulus to another, the memory itself has two levels physiologically: short term memory and long term memory. These are very different Carr says and offers scientific evidence to verify. Research is showing that long term memory operates differently and has a very different chemical and electrical process—one that depends upon “making associations” and using the capacity to “reflect.” Continual, built up dependence upon only “flitting” and “skimming” keeps a person from a deeper, “wisdom” based knowledge. Over time, the brain then adapts away from the deeper type of learning in favor of exclusive multimedia input that is stimulating but not “meditative.”
This does not mean abandoning technology. No one wants to do that, and Carr loves his technology as much as anyone and boldly says so. But he does repeatedly call it dangerous and possibly even fatal to being human to lose touch with having a quiet and undistracted mind. To be too busy is to invite “frenzy,” and to anchor one’s self to frenzy makes a person too machine like. Hopefully, he says, humans will temper their infatuation with technology enough to reintegrate with reading that uses the screen when necessary but also finds the rich pleasures of hours lost in a book held with two hands.
Endnote: terms in quotation marks are mostly from pages 220-228 but typify terminology and language used to describe Carr’s thoughts on these things throughout the book.
Carr, Nicholas G. The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010
- ‘The Shallows’ – The Web Is Changing Our Brains (etcjournal.com)
- The Shallows by Nicholas Carr (lahslibrary.wordpress.com)