As we enjoy the overwhelming resources of the Internet, are we sacrificing our ability to read and think deeply? This is the concern of Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What is the Internet Doing to Our Brains. He documents historical and scientific evidence that our brains change in response to our experiences. In a recent interview, the author said,
I think the Internet encourages a certain type of thinking, a certain type of interacting with the world and with each other. It emphasizes multi-tasking, constant stimulus, gathering lots of little bits of information very quickly, constant exchanges of messages in this fast-pace skimming and scanning behavior. But on the other hand, the technology discourages other types of thinking that to me are extraordinarily important, the ways of thinking that define the possibilities of the human intellect.
The net discourages any type of thinking that requires deep attentiveness, that requires you to screen out distractions and incoming messages and really focus your mind on one thing for an extended period of time.
There is a growing body of psychological and neuro-scientific evidence that shows that people who spend a lot of time online think in different ways than people who don’t.
Mr. Carr describes how human thought has been shaped throughout history by “tools of the mind,” like the alphabet, maps, the printing press, the clock, and the computer. He cites recent discoveries in neuroscience by Michael Merzenich and Eric Kandel. Science tell us that the technologies we use to find, store, and share information can literally reroute our neural pathways.
An Epidemic of A.D.D.
We are becoming ever more adept at scanning and skimming, but we are losing our capacity for concentration, contemplation, and reflection. In the interview Carr says, “we’re losing the ability to resist the impulse to flit around and be distracted, and really dig into sophisticated levels of thinking. We have to resist our primitive instincts to gather any information that’s available to us.”
How Does the Internet Affect Interpersonal Communication?
It seems that we trade quality for quantity and speed. There is more superficial conversation and less intimate involvement. Carr says:
You can argue that people are communicating more intensely with friends and family now, because in the past you had to be physically next to them, or at least near a phone, to talk to them. But there’s other evidence that the quality of conversation, the subtlety, is diminished when you’re sending these brief messages through texts or tweets. But it’s probably too early to really know the full affects of the Internet on our social lives.
Dr. Paul Howard Jones reviewed 178 research studies on What is the Internet Doing to Our Brains?. Below is a video of Dr. Jones summarizing the scientific evidence: