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The Internet ate my brain

Nicholas Carr says that our online lifestyle threatens to make us dumber. But resistance may not be futile

Scientific evidence shows that heavy Internet use could rewire our brains, making us less capable of complex thought. Scientific evidence shows that heavy Internet use could rewire our brains, making us less capable of complex thought.
By Wen Stephenson
June 6, 2010

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Sven Birkerts must be smiling, grimly. Author of the bestselling 1994 cri de coeur “The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age,’’ now editor of the journal Agni at Boston University, Birkerts saw it coming. He raised the alarm on the intellectual and cultural effects of digital media long before Google’s corporate motto, “Don’t be evil,’’ took on an Orwellian tone. In fact, before Google even existed. But Birkerts’s argument was literary and anecdotal. He didn’t have the evidence of neuroscience to back him up 16 years ago.

Well, he does now.

Technology writer Nicholas Carr’s buzzworthy new book, “The Shallows,’’ marshalls recent research to show, essentially, that Birkerts was right. The Internet works on our brains in such a way that we are in danger of losing our capacity for deep, sustained reading and thought — along with all the cognitive benefits. The Gutenberg mind is morphing into the Google mind.

“The Shallows’’ grew from a splashy 2008 Atlantic cover story titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?’’ Sadly, though, what originated as a provocative and important magazine article has become an unsatisfying book. Yet Carr’s central point remains provocative and urgent, and it’s worth a serious look.

Carr’s argument rests on just three chapters (out of ten). He lays out, first, what we now know about the adult brain’s malleability, or “plasticity,’’ and then draws on a slew of recent studies to make the startling case that our increasingly heavy use of digital media is actually changing us physiologically — rewiring our neural pathways. And not necessarily for the better. “The possibility of intellectual decay,’’ Carr notes, “is inherent in the malleability of our brains.’’

Numerous studies point to the same depressing fact: “[W]hen we go online,’’ Carr observes, “we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning.’’ Indeed, given what we know about neuroplasticity, Carr writes, it’s as though the Internet was perfectly designed to “rewire our mental circuits as quickly and thoroughly as possible.’’ Not only do we tend to use the Internet obsessively, but “the Net delivers precisely the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli — repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive — that have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions.’’ As we spend our days on Twitter and Facebook, we stand to lose not just our capacity for sustained concentration, but our capacity for contemplative thought — maybe even our complexly associative long-term memory, the very material of the self.

This is strong stuff. But while Carr does a laudable job synthesizing scientific findings, and making the case for why they matter, the book has crucial flaws. To begin with, Carr devotes most of the book’s first half to an overfamiliar history of our media technologies, our “tools of the mind,’’ telling us in great and unoriginal detail what we already know. We get our Plato, our Gutenberg, our McLuhan. We get the invention of radio, the birth of the computer, the rise of the Web. We get HAL and “2001: A Space Odyssey,’’ perennial cliché of techno-skeptics, just one of many head-slappers. It’s a story without suspense or revelation.

But the book has a deeper, more important shortcoming. And that is the weakness of Carr’s conclusion — his failure to think through what our response to the situation should be, what our options are.

Carr makes some cursory nods in this direction. He suggests that resistance is possible — but apparently futile. We might, he writes, “with concerted effort, once again redirect our neural signals and rebuild the skills we’ve lost.’’ The human mind’s adaptability, he concedes, “is a keynote of intellectual history.’’ But this is cold comfort to him because, he notes, we are so easily overwhelmed by technology. And he more or less leaves it at that. He seems oddly resigned.

Which is a shame. Because the situation may not be quite so dire. Carr notes that old media technologies don’t simply disappear when new ones arrive — the book itself has held on tenaciously. The question is whether the sort of immersive reading and thought that books have enabled will hold on with them. I was disappointed that Carr dismisses the promise of new reading devices (I speak as a Kindle user) to help preserve the sort of immersive experience we’re losing in the chaos of the Web.

But more profoundly, Carr sells short our ability to choose our fate. In the face of the digital onslaught, I can curl up in a fetal position and let my mind waste away, or I can stand and fight. The fact is, I can still decide how — and how much — to use digital media. Perhaps I’ll belong to an ever smaller slice of society that moderates our use. Or perhaps more will join in the resistance. I don’t know, but I wanted to see Carr grapple with these questions.

Books and the Internet, literary culture and digital culture have coexisted for many years. It may be that an engaged intellectual life will now require a sort of hybrid existence — and a hybrid mind that can adapt and survive by the choices one makes. It may require a new kind of self-discipline, a willed and practiced ability to focus, in a purposeful and almost meditative sense — to step away from the network and seek stillness, immersion.

Now, you can call this hybrid mind shallow. I call it all my only hope.

Wen Stephenson, a former editor of the Globe’s Ideas section, was editorial director of TheAtlantic.com from 1996 to 2001. He can be reached at wen.stephenson@gmail.com.

THE SHALLOWS: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains By Nicholas Carr

Norton, 276 pp., $26.95