This Is Your Brain on the Internet, Part 2

June 2, 2010 @ 6:50 pm | Filed under: Links

At, author Nicholas Carr asserts that “The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains”:

The Internet is an interruption system. It seizes our attention only to scramble it. There’s the problem of hypertext and the many different kinds of media coming at us simultaneously. There’s also the fact that numerous studies—including one that tracked eye movement, one that surveyed people, and even one that examined the habits displayed by users of two academic databases—show that we start to read faster and less thoroughly as soon as we go online. Plus, the Internet has a hundred ways of distracting us from our onscreen reading. Most email applications check automatically for new messages every five or 10 minutes, and people routinely click the Check for New Mail button even more frequently. Office workers often glance at their inbox 30 to 40 times an hour. Since each glance breaks our concentration and burdens our working memory, the cognitive penalty can be severe.

The penalty is amplified by what brain scientists call switching costs. Every time we shift our attention, the brain has to reorient itself, further taxing our mental resources. Many studies have shown that switching between just two tasks can add substantially to our cognitive load, impeding our thinking and increasing the likelihood that we’ll overlook or misinterpret important information. On the Internet, where we generally juggle several tasks, the switching costs pile ever higher.

The whole piece, which is well worth a read, is based on Carr’s new book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Your Brain—the one mentioned in this recent post.

Could I be more self-conscious about including those hyperlinks? 😉

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12 Responses | | Comments Feed

  1. But have they studied the effect of being a mother of many small children who constantly interrupt as well? Some days I don’t get more than five minutes to finish a thought for myself! Lol.

  2. I was thinking the same thing, Melanie!

    This idea:

    Many studies have shown that switching between just two tasks can add substantially to our cognitive load, impeding our thinking and increasing the likelihood that we’ll overlook or misinterpret important information.

    made me think of how mothers are often using the excuses of “pregnancy brain” or just motherhood in general for their forgetfulness. Maybe there is something scientific about it after all.

  3. I hate to have to tell y’all, but several not-so-small children (potty break for 3yo) make for lots of (jump up to close off bedroom, entrapping monster under bed) interruptions, too.

    I think it’s true, though, that (listen to 20yo son’s gripes about bandmate) frequent interruptions, due to whatever cause, is having an undersirable (confer with other 20yo son about flower pots; move vehicle blocking first 20yo’s vehicle in driveway) effect on our very ability to focus.

    What was I saying?

  4. I totally agree with this, and on a deeper (more spiritual level) I think it is causing us to be a more impatient, restless people. It really is a problem…

  5. I totally agree with this, and on a deeper level, I think it’s causing us to be a more restless, impatient people 🙁

  6. Sorry about the duplicate comment….Thought the first one din’t register!

  7. No worries, Eileen. With our diminished working memory, we need repetition to help things stick. 😉

  8. I have been a mom for a long time but the kind of interruptions and multi-tasking that being a mom requires isn’t the same as what I have noticed the internet and other media does to my ability to pay attention. If I cut back on media I find it improves. Obviously I am not cutting back on being a mom (and I was interrupted 3 times already just writing this short comment!). I am NOT anti-media/internet, gosh no, but I do think there could be some validity to the idea that it may be having undesirable effects on us and I don’t want to dismiss that out of hand. I think like everything else it’s probably best in moderation.

  9. I can totally see that. I will get this book from the library. I get super stressed when I’m on my computer all day (like today, doing online classes). I feel best when I do slow things like walking, knitting, baking.

  10. Forget my brain, what about my EYES!!??

  11. Just came across this counterpoint in the WSJ: “Does the Internet Make You Smarter?” by Clay Shirky (

    Shirky’s take speaks more to the effects of the Internet on society and culture as opposed to the individual mind, so in that sense, it’s not a fair rebuttal of the Carr piece. The two articles are interesting taken together, though.

  12. Celeste, Thanks. That’s a really interesting piece.

    You know in all the discussion of how the internet is eroding our ability to concentrate, I lost focus on some of the ways that the internet has improved my life. Such as the fact that before I had a blog I wanted to write more but I had very little incentive to do so. I’d go on writing binges and fill up pages and pages in my journal and then have months and months of dry spells when I wrote nothing. The internet has made me into a real writer as I now have my daily wrestle with language, trying to find words for my blog, for comments on other people’s blogs. The immediate reward of feedback on what I write makes it so much easier to invest the time.