Archive for May 10th, 2010

This is your brain on the Internet.

May 10, 2010 @ 6:30 pm | Filed under:

EDITED TO ADD: The name of the Salon post quoted below is annoyingly sensationalist. A much better title would be: “Is the Internet Changing Your Brain?” That seems to be the pertinent question and the point worth considering.

From “Yes, The Internet Is Rotting Your Brain” (Salon), a discussion of the new book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Your Brain, which is an expansion of ideas posited by author Nicholas Carr in the much-discussed Atlantic Monthly article “Is Google Making Us Stupid”:

In the brief period between the writing of the original piece and the publication of “The Shallows,” neuroscientists have performed and reviewed important studies on the effects of multitasking, hyperlinks, multimedia and other information-age innovations on human brain function, all of which add empirical heft to Carr’s arguments.

The results are not cheering, and the two chapters in which Carr details them are, to my mind, the book’s payload. This evidence—that even the microseconds of decision-making attention demanded by hyperlinks saps cognitive power from the reading process, that multiple sensory inputs severely degrade memory retention, that overloading the limited capacity of our short-term memory hampers our ability to lay down long-term memories —is enough to make you want to run right out and buy Internet-blocking software.


The more of your brain you allocate to browsing, skimming, surfing and the incessant, low-grade decision-making characteristic of using the Web, the more puny and flaccid become the sectors devoted to “deep” thought.

You know, I’ve noticed this. I’ve been complaining to Scott lately that my short-term memory isn’t what it used to be, and I don’t know whether it’s due to having hit forty (um, over a year ago) or my online reading habits—that “incessant, low-grade decision making” and, well, information-bingeing—or (most likely) a combination of the two.

What do you think? Have you noticed differences in your memory and powers of concentration in the last couple of years? (I know many of us have been online longer than that—for me it’s been almost exactly 15 years—but it seems to me that things have shifted, intensified, in the last couple of years. So many blogs to read. So many conversations to follow and sometimes participate in. So many tabs open in my browser. So much to read, to learn, to explore.)

The Salon piece asserts that Carr backs his theories up with science, citing a number of studies by neuroscientists. I look forward to reading The Shallows (yes, I can still read an actual book, but I will admit candidly—have admitted it here before, in fact—that it takes a great deal more effort and determination than it used to), and, well, even if I don’t see the situation in as dire a light as Carr does (yet?), I acknowledge the wisdom of moderation and prudence, and the importance of continuing to grapple with books—big, long, challenging, commitment-requiring books.

I’m hoping for another fifty or sixty years with this brain, and I mean to treat it right.