The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains

Rating: 4/4 (A well researched and compelling read on how the Web is affecting our brain and its thought process.)

The article Is Google Making Us Stupid? by Nicholas Carr caused quite a stir when it appeared in a 2008 issue of The Atantic. Buoyed by the public discourse that article caused, Carr sat down to research and write his most recent book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. Having been quite intrigued by the original article, I was obligated to pick up this book when it appeared in the university library. The premise of the book is that beyond its obvious benefits, the Web has wrought significant negative changes in how we think, read, write (or create), remember and even emote. The book takes a stance opposite (or orthogonal to be precise) to that of Clay Shirky, in his Cognitive Surplus, and others who praise the Web for un-burdening humans from remembering pithy details and leaving us free to create.

The Web is just the most recent technology that has impacted the human mind in a profound manner. Carr cites the map and the clock as prime examples from human history. These two inventions completely changed how the human mind perceives space and time. And then came the blockbuster: the book. Human writing is a very recent invention. For most of human history, knowledge had been passed on orally, from the memory of the teacher or parent to that of the disciple or the progeny. Writing helped man pen down the thoughts he could not always commit to memory. The Gutenberg press was Writing 2.0, it helped spread the written word to all who wished to read and learn from it.

The most recent technological offspring has been the Web. It has consumed all that came before it and recreated them in its own image. Books, newspapers, communication, music, TV and movies have all moved to the Web, but we have also changed in how we consume these media in their Web avatar. Companies like Google have spearheaded the movement to make all of human knowledge instantly searchable and accessible. The Web today remembers all the pithy details for us, thus relieving our minds to do its grand task, that is, to think. And yet, today we are finding it harder to remember, to focus, to contemplate, to read deeply and to write cogently.

Using an elaborate repository of research findings, Carr argues that our fallacy lies in assuming that the human brain is a computer. That analogy works only if one is to ignore the powers of creativity, introspection, contemplation and thinking that a human brain is capable of, and instead become an attention-seeking information-processing automaton. The neuroplasticity of the human brain, that it can change and be affected, irrespective of its age, has been fully accepted by the research community in recent years. Any substantive learning or inception happens in the brain only with the existence and access to lots of memories held in its long-term memory bank. One of the many beautiful analogies in the book compares this process to the formation of honey, given time, from the nectar of a million flowers. Our consciousness though is a different beast, it is the state of the short-term memory bank, also called the working memory. Research has showed that it is near impossible to fill the working memory (which is very small) with useful information while browsing, due to the myriad distractions on offer. And without that it is hard for the hippocampus to convert it to schemas which can be stored in long-term memory for future recollection and thinking. Thus, while un-burdening the stressful details we need to remember onto the Web was a good idea, it may be not that good for details which we need for our creative work. The Web surely has improved our lives, and it is surely possible to have deep thinking while using the Web. But, as Carr argues, this is not the behaviour that the Web encourages or rewards, and since it is omnipresent, achieving this ideal is starting to become quite hard for many people.

I found The Shallows to be a compelling read. The book is well researched and highly informative. It is rich in historical narratives and is an extensive compilation of research findings on the human brain. The myriad ways in which scientists experiment with human thought and the brain are very interesting to read. Much like the subject it tackles, the book has 10 chapters and 4 digressions! Do note that Carr focuses on proving his case, but does not offer any solutions. At 250+ pages, the book is a fast un-put-downable read, helped no doubt by Carr’s excellent writing. No matter what side you take on the Web debate, this book by Nicholas Carr is a recommended educational read.

***

Some tidbits from the book:

“Dave, my mind is going,” HAL says forlornly. “I can feel it. I can feel it.” (The scene from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, when Dave starts to remove the memory boards of HAL, the onboard computer.)

“Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.” (By Nietzsche after he switched from writing by hand to a typewriter.)

“Whenever we turn on our computer, we are plunged into an ecosystem of interruption technologies” says blogger and science fiction writer Cory Doctorow.

“For a memory to persist,” writes Kandel, “the incoming information must be thoroughly and deeply processed. This is accomplished by attending to the information and associating it meaningfully and systematically with knowledge already well established in memory.”

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