I don’t know about you, but I can certainly identify with Nicholas Carr’s problem. He writes: “Over the last few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. … [When reading] my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel like I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.” In The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (W. W. Norton & Company, 2010) Carr makes a compelling case that, despite its usefulness and in part because of its addictiveness, the Internet is making us shallower thinkers.
Neuroscience has taught us that the brain is very plastic. But “for all the mental flexibility [neuroplasticity] grants us, it can end up locking us into ‘rigid’ behaviors.” That is, plastic is not the same as elastic. Repeated mental activity can alter our neural circuitry. The mental skills we exercise increasingly take up more brain map space; the circuits of those we neglect can weaken or dissolve. With concerted effort we can rebuild skills we’ve lost, but by and large the vital paths in our brain are the paths of least resistance. Many of these paths take us straight to Google.
As Carr writes: “The influx of competing messages that we receive whenever we go online not only overloads our working memory; it makes it much harder for our frontal lobes to concentrate our attention on any one thing. The process of memory consolidation can’t even get started. And, thanks once again to the plasticity of our neuronal pathways, the more we use the Web, the more we train our brain to be distracted—to process information very quickly and very efficiently but without sustained attention. That helps explain why many of us find it hard to concentrate even when we’re away from our computers. Our brains become adept at forgetting, inept at remembering. Our growing dependence on the Web’s information stores may in fact be the product of a self-perpetuating, self-amplifying loop. As our use of the Web makes it harder for us to lock information into our biological memory, we’re forced to rely more and more on the Net’s capacious and easily searchable artificial memory, even if it makes us shallower thinkers.”
Carr warns: “When we outsource our memory to a machine, we also outsource a very important part of our intellect and even our identity.”
And, yes, while writing this piece I checked my e-mail and looked at some charts. My own brain is constantly being, as T. S. Eliot wrote, “distracted from distraction by distraction.” Perhaps it’s time for some serious effort at rewiring.