In 2008, Nicholas Carr’s article in Atlantic Monthly brought to the surface a creeping feeling that many people have begun to voice – have our brains been acting differently as a result of the time we’ve been spending on the internet? Carr contended that our thoughts, mental processes, and even physical brains are actually being restructured.
The article struck a chord, and he went on to write The Shallows, which explored this phenomenon in the detail it deserves and became a New York Times bestseller and Pulitzer finalist. Referring to the environmental book by Rachel Carson that first alerted the world to the dangers of pesticides, bringing societal upheaval and the creation of the United States’ environmental protection agency, Slate called the book a “Silent Spring” for the mind.
The insights that Carr shares are not just surprising – they are essential to understanding how our brains, and the human condition, are changing. Despite the provocative title, however, Carr’s conclusion is not that the internet is an evil behemoth that is corrupting our minds. Instead, he simply provides some clarity about the sacrifices we make by using the Internet as we do and advocates that we consider those losses along with the benefits that the internet provides.
In his 1964 book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan prophesied that society would suffer from a loss of ability to engage in “linear thinking” because of the electric media (radio, telephones, and TV) that were proliferating at that time. What he did not foresee was the advent of the internet, which exponentially expanded the effect he predicted.
Today, when we criticize the internet, we are quick to lament its content – the frivolous and inane nature of social media, online forums, and other sources. Happy to congratulate ourselves on rising above the dregs of online content, we miss the greater danger: the impact that using the electronic tools – the activity itself – is having on our minds.
Chapter 1: Hal and Me
In the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, the supercomputer HAL attempts to kill the human astronauts he has been working with. In response, an astronaut begins unplugging HAL, prompting the computer to lament, “My mind is going!”
You may have experienced a similar feeling – that something in your mind is being unplugged or rewired, resulting in the gradual, almost imperceptible disappearance of some unknown part of your mental faculties as you spend more time online.
The diminishing of sustained focus as a result of internet use has become a common conversation, particularly in the electronic world itself. A quick Google search reveals numerous discussions about how frequent skimming and scrolling have left us unable to maintain focus on books, articles, or even longer blog posts. Blogger Scott Karp speculates about how his mind has been molded to the internet, reshaping itself for web use:
“What if I do all my reading on the web not so much because the way I read has changed, i.e. I’m just seeking convenience, but because the way I THINK has changed? What if the networked nature of content on the web has changed not just how I consume information but how I process it?
What if I no longer have the patience to read a book because it’s too…. linear?”
One software company performed a study that followed the eye movement of 6,000 kids who had grown up with the internet, and found that they had abandoned traditional reading methodology. Rather than reading systematically from left to right and top to bottom, they instead scanned the page for pertinent information.
This may be the optimal method for scraping relevant information online, but reading a 200-page book requires sustained, focused linear thought. Linear thinking has been humanity’s primary mental methodology since Guttenberg’s printing press, which means that it has driven every societal development from the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution. The implications of abandoning the foundation of humanity’s very way of thinking are profound.
Chapter 2: The Vital Paths
Even before the internet came along, there have been examples of methodology shaping the mind. Due to his health complications, writer Frederich Nietzsche would get severe headaches and nausea as a result of trying to sustain focus on his writing for long periods of time. To cope, he replaced pen and paper with a typewriter. The typewriter alleviated the strain, allowing him to write again, but the keyboard changed his writing style. His papers had become tighter and more “telegraphic.”
Despite such examples, for a long time, many scientists assumed that human brain development ended after adolescence. In fact, mental illnesses were considered untreatable until the beginnings of the digital age in the 1960s, when we began to abandon the assumption that the brain is unmalleable.
An early proponent of brain plasticity was Michael Merzenich, who mapped brain function by interfacing electrodes with the brains of monkeys and noting which electrodes fired when the monkey’s various bodily nerves were stimulated. After noting which part of the brain was responsible for interpreting sensations through a certain finger, he severed the finger’s sensory nerve. In response, the monkey’s brain would physically restructure to restore the sense, even though the nerve could not heal itself.
Merzenich continued to confirm his findings for all neural circuits, proving that the plasticity of the brain affects more than just the senses. Circuits responsible for perceiving, thinking, feeling, and learning were also able to restructure themselves for long-term cognitive changes.
In the 1970s, Eric Kandel used a sea slug to show that plasticity works in the reverse, as well. He found that touching the slug’s gill would cause it to retract. As this stimulus continued, the slugs learned to ignore it, demonstrating a weakening of the sensory synaptic connections that responded to the touch. Originally, 90% of these sensory neurons connected to the motor neurons. After 40 touches, only 10% of the sensory neurons maintained the connection.
The brain’s ability to restructure itself is similarly evident in humans. For example, when a person becomes blind his or her brain will allocate former visual sections for auditory processes and other sensory information. Physical therapists have also trained stroke victims with damaged neurons to use different neurons for the same function, rehabilitating motor skills that were once lost.
Neuroplasticity is an important component of the body’s ability to heal, but is also valuable for adaptation in a changing environment. When monkeys are given simple tools like pliers and rakes, their brains show visual and motor brain expansions, defining circuits to understand how to use the tool. The brain begins to see the tool as an extension of the hand.
(Side note: Possibly the most astounding example of this ability is Dutchman Wim Hof, who has trained himself to control his internal body temperature by manipulating his blood oxygenation to control pH – a feat scientists once considered impossible. Among other things, Wim has climbed Mt. Everest past the “death zone” wearing nothing but shorts, and run a full marathon in the Namib desert without a sip of water. He has taught others to do the same, and contends that his accomplishment is no different from a baby learning to walk. Like the baby, he simply taught his brain to make a new connection.)
Chapter 3: Tools of the Mind
We usually assume that whatever we choose to do is a personal choice, but in reality, it is often the tools we use that direct our thoughts and behavior. Consider, for example, the clock. Life without clocks is difficult to imagine, but for thousands of years, most societies had no need to use the precise time of day to direct their activities. Standardization of time only began to spread after a decree that monks pray at specific times each day.
As society shifted from fields to factories, the clock’s preeminence in society was evidenced by massive clock towers, and it’s ubiquity in the form of personal watches. Clocks determined the beginning and end of work, lunch breaks, and market. Working, playing, and shopping all became a function of time. Humanity’s minds had been reshaped to revolve around precisely measurable time.
All technological creations fit into four categories of purpose:
- Physical strength, dexterity, or resilience (plow, fighter jet)
- The sensitivity of senses (Microscope, Geiger counter)
- Accommodation of nature (birth control, reservoir)
- Cognitive support (map, clock, book)
Tools that fall in the cognitive support category are the most likely to change our brains, since they are specifically designed to support a specific mental process. While a plow or microscope simply makes a process more efficient, the widespread use of maps actually compelled us to expand our language to describe this new cognitive methodology.
When maps gained prominence, the term “map out” arose to describe the process of simplifying abstract ideas like social spheres, life spans, and geographic locations. A two-word term described our new tendency to pare down complex issues into geometric shapes. Similarly, clocks brought terms such as “like clockwork” to express the perfection of machines and our adherence to accuracy.
A world without clocks is difficult to imagine because they’re so ingrained in our daily lives – so imagine if written language, an even more primitive technology, hadn’t come into use ten thousand years ago. When the Greeks formed one of the first alphabets in 750 B.C., access to the written word became far more available to the population at large.
As new technology rose to replace the oral tradition, controversy followed. In fact, Plato wrote about his teacher Socrates’ concern for the manner in which writing crippled the ability to memorize. Socrates feared that students would be deceived that they were gaining knowledge from the written word, when they were really only obtaining data. The ultimate result, he argued, was that knowledge would be relegated to the printed page, rather than being internalized and having the opportunity to build our character and shape our worldview. Writing did have an impact on collective human memory, but without it, science, history, philosophy, art comprehension, and language uniformity wouldn’t be as well-developed as they are now.
What we gained from writing is surely valuable, but Plato, at least, considered it worthwhile to consider what we lost. Perhaps the newest iteration of communication technology, despite its perks, is worthy of the same consideration.
Chapter 4: The Deepening Page
The highly-developed system of writing you are currently using was refined over a tremendously long period of human history. Rough sketches in the dirt and on rocks grew more complex in the form of Egyptian papyrus scrolls, which in turn evolved into longer passages of written works within primitive books. With Guttenberg’s printing press in 1445, mass production of books made the technology readily available to the world.
Reading not only enhanced societal progress, but also rewired brains on a massive scale. In order to read, our visual cortex must make sense of the visual shape of letters. As children learn to read, their brains are able to process the information with less and less mental effort. As we develop mastery of the written word, we begin to be able to “lose ourselves” in written text –a benefit that we tend to forget.
Deep reading had three societal impacts:
- Deep thinking. Before deep reading, humans had little need for this type of systematic, linear thought. As our brains were rewired, the meditative state found within pages of text didn’t slow our thinking, but launched it into hyperdrive.
- Written clarity. Interest in reading incentivized writing which resulted in more adventurous authors writing unconventional and skeptical texts largely free from redundancies. Ideas began to be expressed with increased clarity, elegance, and originality.
- Private learning. Before reading became commonplace, books were often read aloud so the reader could better grasp the concepts. After books, knowledge and learning became silent and private, and learning became more based on the interests of the individual than of the larger group.
If new technology successfully pushes aside the benefits of books, humanity may become less contemplative, reflective, and imaginative – though this change will likely be a slow transition since no medium, let alone our primary source of information for the past several hundred years, is easily replaced.
Chapter 5: A Medium of the Most General Nature
As impossible as it seems to have predicted the internet before its inception, Alan Turing, the man who broke the Nazi communications code in World War II, did just that in the 1940s when he imagined a machine that could complete the function of all others. The internet has now become that machine – a typewriter, clock, printing press, map, calculator, phone, post office, library, radio, TV, and more.
Since it has so many uses, we end up spending a great deal of time interacting with it. A 2008 international survey of 27,500 adults showed that around 30% of leisure time is spent on the web. In 2009, Ball State University determined that the average American spends over 8.5 hours a day looking at a screen (TV, movie, computer, mobile phone). That troubling metric has doubtlessly increased since then.
There have been three notable changes in media that have resulted from the expansion of the internet to fill so many functions, and so much time in the day:
- Print media reduction. First, print media has been crowded out, a fact evidenced by the financial decline of most major print media publications. The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Philadelphia Inquirer have all filed for bankruptcy.
- Media reformatting. Secondly, other media sources such as books, articles, and presentations are being restructured to mimic the web. For example, when a news site publishes an article online, they inject hyperlinks to promote other articles, widgets to increase interactivity, and ads to sustain their efforts.
- External media impact. Finally, external media is even impacted when it isn’t being reformatted as online content. Magazines have shortened their articles and added eye-catching blurb sections. TV variety shows increased their pace to fit more content into the same amount of time. Even symphonies have begun live-tweeting factoids to their audiences during each show.
These changes all compound the loss of focus, extending the internet – and therefore the internet’s effect on our brains – far beyond its original reach.
Chapter 6: The Very Image of a Book
In a manner of speaking, the internet has even worked its way into books themselves, in the form of e-readers. Some fear that this last refuge of immersive, linear thinking is also disappearing as e-books steadily gain in popularity, bringing immediate availability, distracting links, and possibly lower incentive for quality.
This isn’t the first time the obsolescence of printed books was expected. In 1831, the newspaper was an expected replacement; in 1889, the phonograph. To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of printed books have been exaggerated. Still, it is clear that society has moved past the printed page in many ways.
As a result, linear thinking may be losing its relative importance, which means we might want to focus on developing the skill that will matter most – the ability to find meaning quickly within a range of contexts.
Chapter 7: The Juggler’s Brain
The internet is composed of distractions. While we think we’re giving the internet our full attention, we’re actually just jumping from one distraction to the next. Human memory limits our consumption of such stimuli.
Memory can be divided into three types:
- Short-term memory: Consists of our immediate impressions of our environment (something smells good, I’m warm).
- Long-term memory: All the things we’ve learned about our world (roses smell good, summertime is warm).
- Working memory: The bridge between short-term and long-term memory.
When we use the internet, the constraints of our working memory keep us from retaining content. This is why:
When we read a book, we are essentially opening a faucet and letting the information flow. Working memory is like a thimble. In reading, we fill the thimble with the most important droplets from the faucet and dump them into the bathtub of our long-term memory. However, the internet is more similar to several faucets running in unison. Not only are we not getting all of the content from one faucet, we’re so overwhelmed with information that nearly all of it passes us by.
Chapter 8: The Church of Google
Of particular concern is the fact that the industry responsible for providing access to information has a fundamental need to keep us jumping around rather than exercising focused, linear thought.
Search engines like Google make money by advertising. The more times someone clicks a link, the more money Google makes, providing an incentive to keep us clicking rather than remain on a single page. It’s not that Google is intentionally doing something malicious – but it’s important to recognize that the entire system of obtaining information is structured in such a way that rewards perusal, not focused consideration.
Chapter 9: Search, Memory
It turns out that modern science lends credence to Socrates’ concern that we would relegate knowledge to the printed page, abandoning internalized knowledge and its effect on our character and worldview in exchange for more efficient access to data. Constant internet use not only overwhelms working memory, but also contributes to the devaluation of long-term memory.
In the 1960s at the University of Pennsylvania, rats were injected with a protein-blocking drug that prevented the growth of synaptic nerves. The researchers found that the rats became unable to form new long-term memories, but their ability to form short-term memories was not affected. As a result, they concluded that while short-term memories don’t necessarily require the physical formation of synaptic nerves, long-term memory does actually require physical changes in the brain – shaping the essence of who we are.
Simpler tools like pocket calculators relieve working memory by allowing us to hold information externally, thereby facilitating abstract ideas into long-term memory. Rather than amplifying this effect, the internet reverses it by burdening working memory, making it more difficult to transfer the information to long-term memory. Because of the internet, the type of memory that shapes us as individuals is more difficult to form.
As your brain selects information to discard or preserve in long-term memory, your view of the world shifts. Choosing information-gathering methods that don’t lead to long-term memories will physically weaken those synaptic connections, eliminating potentially valuable individual perspectives and diminishing our culture as a whole.
Chapter 10: A Thing Like Me
Alan Turing proposed a test to determine when a computer would be considered intelligent: perform an experiment in which a human subject first communicates with a computer program, then with a real person. When the subject is unable to distinguish between the two, the computer could be considered intelligent. The author refers to a 1964 computer program that could simulate human conversation, but newer technologies like Apple’s Siri are an even better illustration of the blurring lines. Siri is only a computer program, but we find ourselves attributing human characteristics to it (her?) because we are social beings.
Throughout history, humanity has always shaped its thinking to interact with people. Now, we’re shaping our thinking to interact with machines. As the lines between human and computer interaction continue to blur, we may find we are reshaping ourselves in the technology’s image – becoming, in a manner of speaking, more machine-like. Just as primates restructure their minds to make pliers an extension of themselves, we grow neural pathways to better use the web.
Using a tool that amplifies a human skill diminishes our ability to use that skill without the tool. Access to more information via the internet is no exception to that rule; it comes at the price of the skills of deeper contemplation.
Epilogue: Human Elements
Unless we want to take the drastic measure of disconnecting from the internet, these effects are unavoidable. Our brains have been shaped to adapt to the new way of processing information. Most of us would probably agree that the benefits outweigh the costs, but we may want to stop and think about the true magnitude of that cost. Perhaps there is a way to minimize it, and maintain our ability to sustain focus and think deeply – to contemplate, and reflect.
It is a question well worth our consideration. The author uses these words to sum up what is at stake:
“If we lose those quiet spaces, or fill them up with ‘content,’ we will sacrifice something important not only in our selves but in our culture.”
If you noticed yourself becoming fatigued partway through this summary of a book about the internet’s affect on your attention span, I hope that you appreciated the irony, and that it drove the point home. Despite the incendiary title, The Shallows is less a diatribe against the evils of the internet, and more a plea to stop and thoughtfully consider how our entire mode of thinking is being reshaped by the digital world. Josh Waitzkin, a chess prodigy, martial arts champion, and author of The Art of Learning, describes in an interview on The Tim Ferriss Show the central role of empty space in any top performer’s arsenal:
“…[practicing] ways of becoming increasingly in tuned to the subtle ripples inside your body, stilling your waters, having a lifestyle that is less reactive, less input addicted… being really aware of how we fill space, addictively, in life. Whenever there’s empty space, we just fill it, as opposed to maintaining the emptiness – and the emptiness is where we have the clarity of mind and the perception of these little micro-ripples inside of us, cultivating the ability to observe in us and in others the subtlest undulations of quality or of physiology.”
Because the entire orientation of the internet is fundamentally opposed to this cultivation of empty space, it is essential that we structure our increasingly digital lives in a manner that allows us to alternate between making use of the web and withdrawing from it. It might benefit us to ask ourselves if it is really necessary to check email or social media feeds first thing in the morning, or to be on our devices only minutes before we go to sleep. Is it more of a cost or a benefit to allow “notifications” on your devices? I’ve disabled every single one and never regretted it for a moment.
One powerful tool for your arsenal is meditation, which I would define not in some spiritual sense, but simply as the very practical concept of taking a few minutes to pause your activities and thoughts, creating the empty space that allows us to reorient our actions. The Headspace app is a free, easy introduction to this practical approach to the cultivation of empty space, and I’ve found the premium version to be a useful guide to those who wish to go deeper.
In this second irony (using the internet to solve a problem created by using the internet too much) is perhaps the best demonstration of the nature of this interconnected world that we must navigate. The shallows are not always a bad place for a ship to go, but they are not a place to indefinitely stay.