For well over a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the internet. The web’s been a godsend to me as a writer. Research that once required days in the stacks or periodical rooms of libraries can now be done in minutes. A few Google searches, some quick clicks on hyperlinks, and I’ve got the telltale fact or the pithy quote I was after. I use my browser to pay my bills, schedule my appointments, book flights and hotel rooms, renew my driver’s license, send invitations and greeting cards. Even when I’m not working, I’m as likely as not to be foraging in the web’s data thickets—reading and writing e-mail, scanning headlines and blog posts, following Facebook updates, watching video streams, downloading music, or just tripping lightly from link to link to link.
The boons are real. But they come at a price. As Marshall McLuhan suggested, media aren’t just channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the net seems to be doing is chipping away at my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.
Sometime in 2007 I began to notice that the net was exerting a much stronger and broader influence over me than my old stand-alone PC ever had. It wasn’t just that I was spending so much time staring into a computer screen. It wasn’t just that so many of my habits and routines were changing as I became more accustomed to and dependent on the sites and services of the net. The very way my brain worked seemed to be changing. It was then that I began worrying about my inability to pay attention to one thing for more than a couple of minutes. At first I figured that the problem was a symptom of middle-age mind rot. But my brain, I realized, wasn’t just drifting. It was hungry. It was demanding to be fed the way the Net fed it—and the more it was fed, the hungrier it became. Even when I was away from my computer, I yearned to check e-mail, click links, do some Googling. I wanted to be connected. The internet, I sensed, was turning me into something like a high-speed data-processing machine.
I missed my old brain.
What can science tell us about the actual effects that Internet use is having on the way our minds work? No doubt this question will be the subject of a great deal of research in the years ahead. Already, though, there is much we know or can surmise. Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, educators, and web designers point to the same conclusion: When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. It’s possible to think deeply while surfing the net, just as it’s possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but that’s not the type of thinking the technology encourages and rewards.
One thing is very clear: If, knowing what we know today about the brain’s plasticity, you were to set out to invent a medium that would rewire our mental circuits as quickly and thoroughly as possible, you would probably end up designing something that looks and works a lot like the Internet. It’s not just that we tend to use the net regularly, even obsessively. It’s that the net delivers precisely the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli—repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive—that have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions. With the exception of alphabets and number systems, the net may well be the single most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use. At the very least, it’s the most powerful that has come along since the book.
In the course of a day, most of us with access to the web spend at least a couple of hours online—sometimes much more. And during that time, we tend to repeat the same or similar actions over and over again, usually at a high rate of speed and often in response to cues delivered through a screen or a speaker. We tap the keys on our PC keyboard. We drag a mouse and click its left and right buttons and spin its scroll wheel. We rotate our iPhones, iPods, and iPads to shift between “landscape” and “portrait” modes while manipulating the icons on their touch-sensitive screens.
As we go through these motions, the net delivers a steady stream of inputs to our visual, somatosensory, and auditory cortices. There are the sensations that come through our hands and fingers as we click and scroll, type and touch. There are the many audio signals delivered through our ears, such as the chime that announces the arrival of a new e-mail or instant message and the various ringtones that our mobile phones use to alert us to different events. And of course there are the myriad visual cues that flash across our retinas as we navigate the online world—not just the ever-changing arrays of text and pictures and videos but also the hyperlinks distinguished by underlining or colored text, the cursors that change shape depending on their function, the new e-mail subject lines highlighted in bold type. The net engages all of our senses (except, so far, those of smell and taste), and it engages them simultaneously.
The net also provides a high-speed system for delivering responses and rewards— “positive reinforcements,” in psychological terms—that encourage the repetition of both physical and mental actions. When we click a link, we get something new to look at and evaluate. When we Google a keyword, we receive, in the blink of an eye, a list of interesting information to appraise. When we send a text or an instant message or an e-mail, we often get a reply in a matter of seconds or minutes. The net’s interactivity gives us powerful new tools for finding information, expressing ourselves, and conversing with others. It also turns us into lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment.
Our use of the internet involves many paradoxes, but the one that promises to have the greatest long-term influence over how we think is this one: The net seizes our attention only to scatter it. We focus intensively on the medium itself, on the flickering screen, but we’re distracted by the medium’s rapid-fire delivery of competing messages and stimuli. Whenever and wherever we log on, the net presents us with an incredibly seductive blur. Human beings “want more information, more impressions, and more complexity,” writes Torkel Klingberg, a Swedish neuroscientist. We tend to “seek out situations that demand concurrent performance or situations in which [we] are overwhelmed with information.”
Not all distractions are bad. As most of us know from experience, if we concentrate too intensively on a tough problem, we can get stuck in a mental rut. Our thinking narrows, and we struggle vainly to come up with new ideas. But if we let the problem sit unattended for a time—if we “sleep on it”—we often return to it with a fresh perspective and a burst of creativity. Research by Ap Dijksterhuis, a Dutch psychologist who heads the Unconscious Lab at Radboud University in Nijmegen, indicates that such breaks in our attention give our unconscious mind time to grapple with a problem, bringing to bear information and cognitive processes unavailable to conscious deliberation. We usually make better decisions, his experiments reveal, if we shift our attention away from a difficult mental challenge for a time. But Dijksterhuis’s work also shows that our unconscious thought processes don’t engage with a problem until we’ve clearly and consciously defined it. If we don’t have a particular intellectual goal in mind, Dijksterhuis writes, “unconscious thought does not occur.”
The constant distractedness that the net encourages—the state of being, to borrow a phrase from Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” “distracted from distraction by distraction”—is very different from the kind of temporary, purposeful diversion of our mind that refreshes our thinking when we’re weighing a decision. The net’s cacophony of stimuli short-circuits both conscious and unconscious thought, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively. Our brains turn into simple signal-processing units, quickly shepherding information into consciousness and then back out again.
In a 2005 interview, neuroscientist and brain plasticity expert Michael Merzenich ruminated on the internet’s power to cause not just modest alterations but fundamental changes in our mental makeup. Noting that “our brain is modified on a substantial scale, physically and functionally, each time we learn a new skill or develop a new ability,” he described the net as the latest in a series of “modern cultural specializations” that “contemporary humans can spend millions of ‘practice’ events at, [and that] the average human a thousand years ago had absolutely no exposure to.” He concluded that “our brains are massively remodeled by this exposure.” He returned to this theme in a post on his blog in 2008, resorting to capital letters to emphasize his points. While acknowledging that it’s now hard to imagine living without the internet and online tools like the Google search engine, he stressed that “THEIR HEAVY USE HAS NEUROLOGICAL CONSEQUENCES.”
John Sweller, an Australian educational psychologist, has spent three decades studying how our minds process information and, in particular, how we learn. His work illuminates how the net and other media influence the style and the depth of our thinking. Our brains, he explains, incorporate two very different kinds of memory: short-term and long-term. We hold our immediate impressions, sensations, and thoughts as short-term memories, which tend to last only a matter of seconds. All the things we’ve learned about the world, whether consciously or unconsciously, are stored as long-term memories, which can remain in our brains for a few days, a few years, or even a lifetime. One particular type of short-term memory, called working memory, plays an instrumental role in the transfer of information into long-term memory and hence in the creation of our personal store of knowledge. Working memory forms, in a very real sense, the contents of our consciousness at any given moment. “We are conscious of what is in working memory and not conscious of anything else,” Sweller says.
Brain scientists have come to realize that long-term memory is actually the seat of understanding. It stores not just facts but complex concepts, or schemas. By organizing scattered bits of information into patterns of knowledge, schemas give depth and richness to our thinking. “Our intellectual prowess is derived largely from the schemas we have acquired over long periods of time,” Sweller says. “We are able to understand concepts in our areas of expertise because we have schemas associated with those concepts.”
Imagine filling a bathtub with a thimble; that’s the challenge involved in transferring information from working memory into longterm memory. By regulating the velocity and intensity of information flow, media exert a strong influence on this process. When we read a book, the information faucet provides a steady drip, which we can control by the pace of our reading. Through our single-minded concentration on the text, we can transfer all or most of the information, thimbleful by thimbleful, into long-term memory and forge the rich associations essential to the creation of schemas. With the net, we face many information faucets, all going full blast. Our little thimble overflows as we rush from one faucet to the next. We’re able to transfer only a small portion of the information to long-term memory, and what we do transfer is a jumble of drops from different faucets, not a continuous, coherent stream from one source.
Jordan Grafman, head of the cognitive neuroscience unit at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, explains that the constant shifting of our attention when we’re online may make our brains more nimble when it comes to multitasking, but improving our ability to multitask actually hampers our ability to think deeply and creatively. “Does optimizing for multitasking result in better functioning—that is, creativity, inventiveness, productiveness? The answer is, in more cases than not, no,” Grafman says. “The more you multitask, the less deliberative you become; the less able to think and reason out a problem.” You become more likely to rely on conventional ideas and solutions, he argues, rather than challenging them with original lines of thought.
David Meyer, a University of Michigan neuroscientist and one of the leading experts on multitasking, makes a similar point. As we gain more experience in rapidly shifting our attention, we may “overcome some of the inefficiencies” inherent in multitasking, he says, “but except in rare circumstances, you can train until you’re blue in the face and you’d never be as good as if you just focused on one thing at a time.” What we’re doing when we multitask “is learning to be skillful at a superficial level.” The Roman philosopher Seneca may have put it best two thousand years ago: “To be everywhere is to be nowhere.”
The net grants us instant access to a library of information unprecedented in its size and scope and makes it easy for us to sort through that library—to find, if not exactly what we were looking for, at least something sufficient for our immediate purposes. What the net diminishes is the ability to know, in depth, a subject for ourselves, to construct within our own minds the rich and idiosyncratic set of connections that give rise to a singular intelligence.
Reprinted from The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr. Copyright 2010 by Nicholas Carr. With the permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Co.