Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows, believes the Internet is changing the way we think – and not for the better.
In The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember he assesses the many psychological, behavioural, and neurological studies that examine internet use and concludes that internet use is indeed making us shallow thinkers.
The evidence shows, Carr argues, that when we read online text peppered with links to videos, other articles and other websites, we take in less than people who read printed words on paper pages. People who look at complex multimedia presentations, with flashing images, pop-up text and fleeting captions remember less than those who absorb information more slowly and consciously. When we dip in and out of emails, text messages, RSS streams, Google Alerts, Facebook, Twitter and other fast-information sources we understand less than those who focus and concentrate for longer periods of time. As a result of our shifting attention and shortening attention spans, we may feel we are coping with lots of data and performing multiple tasks but we are actually often less creative and less productive than people who give their full attention to one source or one topic for a longer period of time.
Carr argues that “the richness of our thoughts, our memories and even our personalities hinges on our ability to focus the mind and sustain concentration.” He quotes Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel when he says: “Only when we pay close attention to a new piece of information are we able to associate it ‘meaningfully and systematically with knowledge already well established in memory’.
Without forging such associations Carr argues we are unable to fully take in complex concepts and examine them critically. Constant distractions and interruptions as we browse and check mobile phones mean that our brains can’t form the “strong and expansive neural connections that give distinctiveness and depth to our thinking. Our thoughts become disjointed, our memories weak.”
He quotes studies reviewed in Science in 2009 by the UCLA Developmental Psychologist Patricia Greenfield who found the net has a dual effect on our cognitive abilities. On the one hand, internet use tends to increase the speed at which we shift our focus between images and concepts. On the other, it leads to less rigorous, more ‘kneejerk’ thinking. Greenfield concluded that “screen-based media” are leading to “weaknesses in higher-order cognitive processes.” What does that mean? It means that net and mobile phone users are becoming less able to use abstract vocabulary, to be reflective and imaginativ or to think critically.
Carr also reports on a recent experiment at Stanford University. Researchers gave cognitive tests to 49 people who habitually work online and browse a lot and to 52 people who browse much less often. The heavy net users coped badly with all the tests. They were quickly distracted, had short attention spans and proved unable to distinguish between significant and trivial information.
Now, it is true that sometimes an idea can deepen or a problem can be resolved if we leave it alone for a while and come back to it with a fresh mind. However, online distractions tend not to work in that way. Instead, Carr argues “the cacophony of [online] stimuli short-circuits both conscious and unconscious thought, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively. Our brains turn into simple signal-processing units, shepherding information into consciousness and then back out again.”
The conclusion is that while we are all busy rapidly surfing the web, picking up snippets of information here and there and dotting in and out of multiple websites, we’re weakening our ability to engage in the more contemplative ways of thinking that engender learning, deeper reflection and analysis. “Skimming” Carr says “is becoming our dominant mode of thought.”
To a large degree I’d agree with those conclusions. However, the net needs to be seen in the context of a world which is generally busier and more ‘multiple’ than ever before. Here’s an example – and all of us can give many similar examples. One day this week, going nowhere near the internet, I was in three different towns and a medieval village (St Guilhem le Desert), watched a short film on St Guilhem, swam, saw an exhibition from the Caribbean and an exhibition by local French artists and sculptors, read articles on slavery, the Chilean miners trapped underground, animatronics and Angeline Jolie’s relationship with Brad Pitt, re-read part of Love In the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, listened to some guy chatting about philosophy on the radio, looked at tomato recipes in a cookery book, spoke to friends on the phone, bought and grilled fish and had conversations about a certain kind of olive tree and yellow-flowered oleanders. Several of those things could have been done by people in the Middle Ages. But several are the exclusive preserve of our media age and reflect the complexity of our time, in particular the ability to travel rapidly. The internet gives us relatively easy access to the increasingly complex information generated by the way we live. It reflects the burgeoning centres of interest and huge range of experiences open to us. While it may be true that the net is leading many to skim the surface of our world, it’s that world that makes the internet so busy – not the internet that makes the world so busy.