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.

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26 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Mamalion says:

    I totally agree with you- not sure where I misplaced my brain! One of the things I often debate with others is that I think seniors have slower processing, and supposed senior moments, because there is sooo much information they need to sort through. If you look at the sheer number of experiences they have lived through, that’s a huge amount of ‘stuff’ in their brains, and not necessarily filed in an organized fashion.

    Now for me, who passed 40 two years ago, I think my problem is that my life requires so much concentration- it comes at me at the speed of light, so many quick decisions, so many distractions just with my kids, let alone news, information from outside sources, extended family, school, church, etc., etc., etc. It’s no wonder I feel like a chipmunk on speed. With a larger family, we are processing at least twice as much volume of information as a typical mom. Then the fact they are all at home- I hear there are moms that actually sit down and drink a cup of tea that isn’t reheated 3 times, and can finish a thought or conversation without interruption. That’s not me. I think we naturally live life more distracted- my brain is continually engaged on several levels all the time- that we don’t have the capacity to dig deep and study any more. I’m praying that as my kids get older, and I have more time and capacity to study, that I’ll find I haven’t lost it completely.

    I tell my husband it’s like my brain is a computer with too many windows open at the moment.

  2. Theresa says:

    I have definitely noticed this in the past couple of years. I had attributed it to my getting older (43 for another month) and the propensity for early onset Alzheimer’s in my family. But. If I can blame the internet then I’m all for it.

  3. feebeeglee says:

    Mamalion I am very impressed that you managed to type that long comment!

    Very much a difference for me in the last few years. Is that six kids, one with severe autism, all homeschooled? Is it middle age? Is it teh internets?

    I have measured out my life with coffee spoons. I tell you what.

    I quit Facebook and it helped but I filled in with too much Twitter. I think I need a real paradigm shift.

  4. Sarah says:

    I have definitely noticed this. My attention span for reading books had diminished considerably last year. I took a big break from the computer by not using it for leisure, just work and my ability to dig into a book came back after awhile. I need to do it again.

  5. coffeemamma says:

    I also cut out Facebook, never got into Twitter, and cut my Google reader list in half. I still try to blog (Hubby wants me to, as a kind of scrapbook of our days), but I even find that difficult now. I also stopped watching the news, which has made a huge difference.

    I’ve been on the internet for over 15 years now, too, and it is just *so different* than it used to be. There were hardly any images, let alone links, sidebars, advertisements, etc. I’m a very visual person, and information overload hits pretty quickly.

    My 14yod is just starting to explore the online world, and she finds it overwhelming. She’s very glad that she’s not in school and expected to use the internet for all of her research.

    Reading The Help right now for our book club (*love*), but I’ve already reserved The Shallows at the library for my next read. Thanks!

  6. MelanieB says:

    Well, I don’t know. I have definitely noticed a lessening of my attention span and ability to think deeply. I still read plenty of books; but maybe not books that are quite as weighty. I’ve struggled a bit with books that require more out of me and have drifted towards lighter reading.

    Then again, in the past four years I’ve had three babies. I’m not sure I can’t attribute a lot of my slowing down to a either pregnancy hormones and exhaustion or baby-induced sleep deprivation. For a while at the beginning of this year I was feeling like a zombie. Then I finally got Ben sleeping better at night and no longer waking me up every two hours. It’s like night and day I tell you. Suddenly I feel capable of real thought.

    If I cut out the internet altogether or severely curtailed it would I suddenly discover even more capacity? Would I suddenly be able to read Faulkner. I tried that last month and I crashed and burned. Then again, I didn’t really want to all that much. Perhaps I could have pushed through.

    Then again, I suspect that if I went cold turkey on the nets I’d slump into major depression. For me this is a major intellectual outlet. It’s a source of stimulation, of mature discourse. I think moderation is probably the key.

  7. becka says:

    I have noticed, too, over the past several years that I seem more distracted, less focused, less able to concentrate on a single book (or anything)…but I’ve been blaming it on having become daily involved with caring for elders, turning 40, having a baby the same week as turning 40, while navigating the passage from teenage to adult with three teenagers, you get the idea.

    I do agree that limiting electronic usage is a good thing. I’m probably the last person on the planet who has never had a facebook account; I watch the news only for the three-minute segment when I know the weather report comes on; and I still prefer looking things up in big, thick books rather than Wiki-ing. My “video gaming” consists of the trivia quiz on Goodreads and an occasional round of Bookworm or Word Mojo. I have half a dozen blogs I follow, and feel as MelanieB does, that they are a necessary source of stimulation, affirmation, encouragement.

  8. Pam says:

    I used the Internet five years ago and had a mind like a steal trap. Then I had three kids and now it is mushy. Like the above commenters I am not sure the Internet is my problem. Maybe adifferent audience is needed for this survey 😉 I think one of the most important skills we will teach our children is Internet research — sifting and discernment.

  9. Sue says:

    I’ve been an Internet junkie for a good solid 15 years now–and my 52yo memory is like swiss cheese–especially short-term memory. I also have five kids and a lot to remember, so that needs to be factored in. I don’t recall that the problem hit until about four or five years ago, though. (Then again, maybe I wouldn’t recall. LOL)

    I think the Internet has affected my attention span. I want instant answers to things now, and don’t have the patience to research much (other than autism) the old-fashioned way. When I do autism research I believe I’m actually capable of better, faster, deeper understanding than I used to be. Practice makes perfect, and the Internet doesn’t seem to have degraded my ability to function in areas that are important to me.

    OTOH, I think my online time may have had a positive influence on my writing ability. I can dash off the equivalent of a long letter in a much shorter time that I used to–even considering that typing is faster than handwriting. Again, practice makes perfect. 🙂

    I suspect that whether or not the Internet has a positive or negative impact on brains depends on which faculty you’re evaluating.


  10. Melissa Wiley says:

    Cold turkey, quelle horreur! 😉 Y’all know I love me my internet. It’s worth noting that in the post right before this one (not counting the baby photo), I was gushing thanks upon the interwebs for bringing me (among other things) Roger Ebert’s journal, which genuinely and unmistakably enriches my life. And looking things up—text and images—is a huge part of how my kids and I learn, as are games of all sorts, including digital ones.

    But if neuroscientists are discovering that the way we use the internet is actually altering our brains (that sounds sci fi and alarmist, but it’s the same concept of elasticity upon which Charlotte Mason based her ideas about habit formation over a hundred years ago), then I will readily adjust my habits.

    Facebook is causing me some consternation these days. It has become an important source of family (and friend too, but especially family) connection for me & mine. I’ve been reading about FB’s latest wave of privacy outrages and feeling grim…I don’t want to pull away from FB. I love it there.

    Re the original Atlantic article (“Is Google Making You Stupid”), which is, I think, around two years ago—that article jumped out at me because not ONE WEEK before I came across it, I had begun complaining to Scott and Alice that I was having trouble reading books. I couldn’t seem to commit to any single book, even ones that I really really wanted to read. I’d read a page, a chapter maybe (rarely), and find my thoughts had drifted away. And I didn’t think it had to do with mommy brain, because all along one of my chief challenges as a mother has been NOT to get too sucked into books-glorious-books, but rather to pull my mind away from the text and stay focused on the children. (I struggle with this with my OWN writing, too, even more so—drifting into mentally writing a passage when I ought to be *listening* to someone else—but that is an entirely separate problem, and is one I’ve grappled with my entire life.)

    Anyway, I read the Atlantic article (July 2008) and discovered (especially in the comments and subsequent posts all over the net about it) that I was not alone. A great many other people were struggling to concentrate on long books, too. I resolved then to try harder—and the difference between my 2008 and 2009 reading logs reflect my efforts. But it was, and continues to be, an effort. Memory loss alone I might attribute to my age, but difficulty concentrating? Hyperfocus has always been my difficulty, not the opposite, until the last year or two. It’s interesting. I’ll be watching the science. And I had already begun adjusting my hours, so to speak—trying to save blogs, FB, and Twitter for the early-morning and late-night parts of the day. Like now. 🙂

  11. Melissa Wiley says:

    Oh and I meant to add as noteworthy: the way Laura Miller (writer of the Salon piece) saved all her pertinent links for the end of the article, to spare our brains the effort of that low-grade decision-making while reading her piece. What think you?

  12. Michele Quigley says:

    I have certainly noticed a decline in my ability to focus in the last 10 years (been online about 13 years). Like you Lissa I was always someone who was hyper focused. I read like crazy for years as a young mom and my biggest problem was pulling myself away from the book to focus on my family. Yes I DO have a lot more to think about nowadays but I don’t think that in and of itself is what is causing my concentration problems. I thought of Charlotte Mason and the habits thing as well –and we know now that she was right, our brains do change and adapt to what we are and aren’t doing. Lots to think about here!

  13. yvonne says:

    When I read I gather information for myself, yes; but I also find that I’m grabbing bits for my artsy 8 year old, my scientist 13 year old, my rebel 6 year old, etc. My brain doesn’t feel like just mine anymore. I think concentration is much harder for me because I am picking through the material from so many different perspectives all at the same time–brain must rest more frequently.

    This is true for most aspects of my life. When I am outside sitting in our yard I notice and call attention to things that will interest each of my children as well as myself–lots of stuff I never would have noticed if it weren’t for knowing them so well.

  14. Jeanne says:

    Yes to Yvonne. I am living with all these other people in my head now. It is like telegraphing them hyperlinks…

  15. Penny in VT says:

    Absolutely. I was at a point where my thinking was frantic so I took a break – just to see. I went offline for 2 weeks and I was able to think more clearly and with more focus. I planted more flowers too!

    Not that that kept me away, mind you, but it has certainly caused me to rethink how I use the internet, or maybe how it uses *me*.

    Fascinating. You find the best stuff.

  16. Johnny Rollerfeet says:

    Someday, somewhere, we will discover a cave painting about the effects of the wheel on the health of mankind.

  17. Melissa Wiley says:

    Ah, Johnny, you’re new here and that has a trollish feel. Spend a little time on the site and you’ll see I’m no neo-Luddite. I am, however, a person who likes to make informed choices. 🙂

  18. COD says:

    I didn’t take Johnny’s comment as trollish, and after 15 years online I like to think I can spot a troll from 5 blogs away 🙂 He is right that for every new thing, there is somebody invested in the old thing that will claim the new thing is bad for you. I’m sure somebody somewhere was concerned that the printing press was going to rot our brains because we wouldn’t need to memorize everything we might ever want to know. Not to mention the dangers of allowing information to pass freely into the hands of the masses…

  19. Melissa Wiley says:

    Chris, the reason Johnny struck me as trollish (or maybe drive-by is more accurate) is because he’s never commented here before and chimed in with a remark aiming a little snark our direction (me & commenters). Anyone who reads here regularly knows I love me my techie toys and social media.

    I also love information. Looking at all sides of a thing. We used to give certain drugs to pregnant women and later discovered that wasn’t such a terrific idea. I see a big difference between alarmism (oh noes! a wheel!) and awareness.

  20. Sam Wilson says:

    Being 20 years old and being brought up in a family which has always used computers I have become very accustomed to using computers even from a very early age. Being in the third year of my computer science degree not much has changed. It’s always good to be skeptical on these matters but on a personal level I can ascertain that my short term memory is dreadful to say the least. I wouldn’t say that I was any less intelligent but they way I learn information seems to be vary from most people I know. Most information I absorb is through passionate reading on several subjects which I read on a daily basis.

  21. Joann says:

    I have noticed, like CoffeeMama, that the internet itself has changed over the past twelve years. It’s much slicker and faster. You can find anything. For us, without library access, it is a miracle of information. I have noticed that I think better when I have been off line for a time. I will have to read The Shallows (probably on Kindle for PC. LOL) and give serious consideration to whether the lack of memory is worth the instant gratification…

  22. Mark Logan says:

    Absolutely, I have noticed this. I’m in my mid-40s and have been wondering about decreased attention span and lower long-term memory retention.

    One the one hand, it’s good to think that it may not all be attributable to age. On the other hand, I work in interactive marketing (have done since 1992), so I’m probably really screwed.

    What was the question again?

  23. Katherine says:

    I have definitely noticed this since I have been using the internet more over the last two years. I don’t remember once often used rich or descriptive words (or even how to spell them). My writing has become less interesting and satisfying. But mostly, I have noticed that my artistic skills have suffered. I used to look at a blank wall and imagine how it could be painted to be much more beuatiful and interesting. I could sit down with a piece of blank paper and I couldn’t wait to begin a project. That desire seems deadened and rich images don’t come to me. I feel like I’ve been robbed. Since I am a visual person, I really think the visual business of the internet has influenced how I look at the world and consequently how I translate that into my art.

  24. Faith says:

    My whole family suffers from lack of focus and short term memory problems. I do think the computer exacerbates these problems. My solution is to conscientiously force myself to do things that make me focus. I force myself to read long hard books. I am in my second year of Latin. It is very hard for me! I can hear my brain groaning when trying to learn 3rd declension adjective endings!

    I especially worry for my kids. I used to just try to encourage them to read by strewing books and doing lots of read alouds, but my gentle encouragement wasn’t enough to overcome the powerful attraction of the internet. So now I require them to sit down and read for certain amount of time each day. And I keep track of the books. So often they want to flit from book to book and not finish them because they are ‘hard’ or ‘boring.’ Sigh! I worry.