The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains

A young friend recently introduced me to this book, which is required reading in a local high school curriculum.  I was really not in the mood to read this sort of thing at the time, but once I started it, I was hooked. Drawing from sources in neuroscience, philosophy, history, and literature, Carr proposes that technology steadily alters our patterns of thinking. Our use of the Internet in particular is rewiring our brains in the areas of working memory, long-term memory, attention, and comprehension.  In a nutshell, the process goes something like this: with the abundance of information in hypertext links, posts, updates, emails, ads, crawls, and flippers, and various other pings, and dings that we’re multitasking,  our  concentration becomes fragmented, which overloads working memory, which causes information to not be processed deeply enough to find its way into long-term memory, which interferes with comprehension. So our brains get really busy and excited when immersed in electronic media, but not  in a way that promotes contemplation and comprehension.  Sustained attention is necessary to forge those deeper links.

The chapter on memory was my favorite — well-researched and simply explained.  The ideas raise all sorts of interesting questions.  What are the long-term consequences of outsourcing our cognition to machines – on an individual and societal level?

Will habitual use of electronic media, particularly among children, erode the desire, or even the ability, to develop sustained attention? Being in schools and classrooms across districts everyday of the week I see more and more “smart” technology being implemented in classrooms at earlier and earlier ages.  Given the hand-brain-cognition connection (see Levin’s book The Hand for a comprehensive review of that topic) do preschoolers really need to have more iPads instead of 3-dimensional toys to manipulate with their hands? What are the gains and are they worth the cost?

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