How the Internet is Eating Our Brains.

“The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts,” wrote McLuhan. Rather, they alter “patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance.”

Several years ago, I was browsing through magazines at a Books-a-Million when I came across a certain issue of Atlantic Magazine.   Emblazoned on the cover was this evocative headline: “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?” with the O’s in “stoopid” outlined in the now-iconic  Google red and yellow.  Intrigued, I pulled it off of the magazine shelf and began to read.  Written by Nicholas Carr, the article explored the idea of how the Internet might actually be physically rewiring and reconfiguring our brains.  I found the article so thought-provoking that I called my friend Becca over and we began to read the article together and spent the next 1-2 hours discussing Carr’s ideas at a bookstore cafe table.  Overwhelmed and slightly disturbed by the possibility of Google’s foray into artificial intelligence coupled with a couple quotes from Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and I think Becca and I brainstormed what we thought at the time were some brilliant ideas for a sci-fi screenplay…

The original Atlantic article is posted here and I recommend it if you’ve got a 10-15 minutes to spare.  Carr later expanded this article into a book called “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.”  I felt guilty downloading the book on my Kindle–it seemed to be the sort of book that one ought to read the bound paper version–but I was impatient.

The article (and later the book) cited how technology has historically changed the way humans think and interact with the world around them.  Intellectual technologies–such as the clock, maps and the Internet–in particular have yielded significant changes.  With the development of the clock, our concept of time became more regimented and calculated, down to the millisecond.  Before clocks, we followed the rising and setting of the sun.  Now we schedule appointments, microwave our meals and launch rockets and shuttles into outer space down to the second.  Before the creation of maps, we used to scratch drawings on cave walls to depict objects and space.  The development of cartography or mapmaking–throwback to 8th grade history class–caused humans to think much more specifically about space and how to represent this on paper.  Fast-forward to our heavily GPS-reliant, Google-Earth world where every intersection, mountain and molehill are mapped out.   Our ideas create the technology, which then reflects back upon the minds that created it.  In the same way, the way our brains relate to information, process, network with other ideas into this collective web of consciousness is starting to similarly reflect the Internet.  As Carr says,

Although the use of any kind of tool can influence our thoughts and perspectives—the plow changed the outlook of the farmer, the microscope opened new worlds of mental exploration for the scientist—it is our intellectual technologies that have the greatest and most lasting power over what and how we think.

While the Internet has brought a wealth of benefits, there are also several drawbacks which Carr details in “The Shallows”:

  •  A loss of deep reading:  We tweet, we scan, we skim, we browse, we click and flit from link to link but rarely do we sit down with written material and absorb, contemplate and internalize the information.
  • Although web-browsing can be mentally stimulating, our ability to interpret information and synthesize new ideas erodes.   As Carr says:

“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….We become mindless consumers of data….What we’re experiencing is, in a metaphorical sense, a reversal of the early trajectory of civilization: we are evolving from being cultivators of personal knowledge to being hunters and gatherers in the electronic data.”

  • Multi-tasking is actually hampers our ability to think deeply and creatively: “What we’re doing when we multitask is ‘learning to be skillful at a superficial level.'”
  • The loss of the art of memorization in our culture.  The vast and seemingly infinite storage of information online is extremely beneficial and convenient, we lose the ability to remember, which is actually an important neurological process in our brains.  Since I can Google, IMDB or speed dial without ever having to memorize a single phone number, there’s no need to remember the information, only how to recall it.  “Memory, for Seneca as for Erasmus, was as much a crucible as a container. It was more than the sum of things remembered. It was something newly made, the essence of a unique self.”  Or as Robert and Jad from my favorite podcast (Radiolab) put it: “Memory is the art of re-creation.”

The Internet isn’t going away anytime soon.  And I recognize the irony as I’m hammering away on my Macbook to write this post.  I’m not a Luddite or anything; I’m a typical 20-something who spends several hours each day either on my computer or on my iPhone (or on the imaginary iPad that I would like to acquire sometime in the near future…;) I have noticed that my thinking and ability to write has somewhat decreased over the past couple of years.  I used to write for a living (regularly cranking out 2-3 full articles per week in addition to my regular blogs, short stories and poetry) and now I find it very difficult to sit down alone for an hour or two and write without being distracted by the buzzing of my phone, by control T’ing into a new tab so I can read another interesting article or blog post, or “gee, who was that actor from that movie?  I should IMDB it” and “Let me Google that banana bread recipe I’ve made 12 times because I forgot if it’s baking powder or baking soda that I use.”  I myself am prone to the hyperactive, hyperlinked, fragmented and ever-expanding world of the Internet.

I DO think that we need to actively cultivate ways to challenge our minds, to think and read deeply, synthesize new information, foster creativity.

John told me that the actor Anthony Hopkins memorizes a passage of Shakespeare and other poetry once a day.  Jenna inspired me to try to get better at chess.  Writing is a discipline that I’ve neglected and feel the need to rekindle.  I’ve recently rediscovered the benefits of journaling.  On paper!

What about you?  Do you think the Internet is making you “stoopid”?  What do you think?


2 thoughts on “How the Internet is Eating Our Brains.

  1. My first quick and not deeply thought out reply is this; I feel like I can offload a some of the useless memory hogging brain functions to the net. No longer needing to remember stoopid trivia means I never have to devote brain power to remembering any fact that can be found on IMDB. I find it quite freeing. It’s like extra ROM for my brain.

    • Carr actually devotes an entire chapter to that very concept, that we have “outsourced” an increasing amount of data to computers. We tend to think of our brains as analogous to computers, where we can simply store and recall information, so why wouldn’t it be any different to store it digitally and recall it at will on a computer? Carr makes a compelling argument as to how that assumption has actually affected the way we recall information.

      When we want to access stored data on a computer, we simply locate it and recall it. It’s in the same exact form as the last time we left it, barring any deletions or corruption. When we remember something in our brains though, we find that both short-term and long-term memory are complex, biological processes. When we “remember” something that’s been internalized, our brains are not merely “recalling data” the way a computer would; our brains are synthesizing new proteins, firing synapses and carving out complex neurological pathways. In essence, human memory is re-creation, not recall. When we don’t exercise and reinforce those neurological pathways (or when and we “outsource” the data, the biological composition of our brain physically alters. Through our culture of hyperlinks and Internet, have become very adept at “multitasking” and filtering relevant and irrelevant data and scanning and skimming and deciding what we want to chase after; in this sense, our certain parts of our brains are stimulated and exercising mental functions. However, this means that other parts of the brain that facilitate deep thinking processes, that not only takes in information, but internalizes, processes it and synthesizes new ideas–the creative part–those neurological pathways are physically atrophying through underuse.

      I don’t think anybody would deny that Google culture and data storage today is efficient, convenient and liberates us up to accomplish other tasks that might otherwise take up our time. I think he’s just pointing out that digital culture is actually physically, biologically and chemically changing our brains. And that’s something to consider.

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