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The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains

Find out if the internet is having an effect on our ability to read and think deeply?

, PCC Faculty Librarian

September 1, 2010

While Nicholas Carr’s 2008 essay "Is Google Making Us Stupid?", might have launched the popular discourse about the effect of the Internet and the web on our brains, it was not news to scientists who study attention and cognition. One effect is that the multimedia environment and amount of information on the web puts our brains into a state of cognitive overload. In this state, we are more distractible in an “ecosystem of interruption technologies" (Doctorow, Writing in the Age of Distraction), even the anticipation of the arrival of more digital stimulation is enough to divert our attention (Richtel, A10, Your Brain on Computers). With our attention split, we have less working memory at our disposal: we have less space for storing information; we have a harder time remembering information because we are less able to transfer information from working memory to long-term memory; and we have less capacity to integrate ideas and to reason.

A second finding is that Internet use causes us to use different parts of our brains and to form different neural pathways. “[T]he Net delivers precisely the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli – repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive – that have been shown to results in strong and rapid alternations in brains circuits and functions. …[It] may well be the single most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use” (Carr, 116, The Shallows). Whereas reading a book activates areas of the brain associated with language, memory, and visual processing, reading on the Internet activates areas associated with decision making and problem solving in addition.

While this may be good news in terms of keeping brain function sharp over time, it does have an impact on our ability to read deeply and concentrate in a sustained manner. We are gaining cognitive nimbleness, perhaps at the expense of our ability to think deeply and creatively. On the Net, skimming and scanning serve us well, as shortcuts to dealing with the vast amount of information and finding what we need. Through alterations in our brains due to regular and extensive Internet use, these means of reading and making sense of information are becoming dominant. The economist Tyler Cowen, in Create Your Own Economy, puts it another way, “[w]hen access [to information] is easy, we tend to favor the short, the sweet, and the bitty.” (43)

Inhibited deep thought, anxiety, distraction, and forgetfulness sounds grim, right? The good news is that this is a field of study that only continues to gain researchers and attract attention. Researchers are investigating ways to calm the mind, and to help us find ways to balance our need to know and deal with information with our need to be, think, and create. This is one subject of Winifred Gallagher’s Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. In a seminal study from the University of Michigan, "The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature", researchers found that people learn better after walking in the woods than after walking down an urban street; they posit that the cognitive rest allows people to focus and retain information better.

The positive effect of nature on the modern wired mind – and how it prompted a group of scientists to go on a completely electronics-free vacation in Utah – is also the subject of a recent New York Times article, in their series “Your Brain on Computers”. With this continuing research, we can expect to have information in the near future for what we can do as educators to work with and/or mitigate technology and its effects on our students.

Works cited

Berman, Marc G., John Jonides, and Stephen Kaplan. "The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature." Psychological Science 19.12 (2008): 1207-1212. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 24 Aug. 2010.
Carr, Nicholas. “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The Atlantic, July/August 2008. Web. 24 Aug. 2010.
Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. Print.
Cowen, Tyler. Create Your Own Economy: The Path to Prosperity in a Disordered World. New York: Dutton, 2009. Print.
Doctorow, Cory. “Writing in the Age of Distraction.” Locus Magazine, January 2009. Web. 24 Aug. 2010.
Gallagher, Winifred. Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. New York: Penguin Press, 2009. Print.
Richtel, Matt. “Digital Devices Deprive Brain of Needed Downtime.” New York Times, 25 August 2010: B1. Print. Also available through New York Times.
Richtel, Matt. “Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain.” New York Times, 16 August 2010, National ed.: A1, A10. Print. Also available through LexisNexis Academic.

Library & Learning
Vol. 1 Issue 8 September 2010