This is your brain on the Internet

Are digital distractions destroying critical thinking?

Author Nicholas Carr

Ever get the feeling you just can’t concentrate like you used to? Feel like your brain is stuck on overload and you can’t put together a coherent thought? Never fear, the Internet is here for you to self-diagnose and treat whatever ails you. Yet, according to author Nicholas Carr, the one thing the World Wide Web will not tell you is the cause of your distractions. The Internet.

Carr, author and former executive editor of the Harvard Business Review, will be speaking at the Chautauqua Community House on Thursday, Jan. 10, for an event titled “Caught in the Net: How Computers Shape Our Talents and Lives.” In addition to discussing the arguments that went into his Pulitzer Prizenominated book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Carr will update trends that have occurred in the two years since it was published. A Q&A will follow for the audience to try to confirm or refute Carr’s notion that we are actually altering the circuitry of our brains to crave distraction and superficiality at the expense of powerful, introspective learning.

In The Shallows, Carr does not quibble with the notion that the Internet is here to stay. Instead, he posits the same skepticism that has arisen during such epochal cultural shifts in the past. In his research, Carr finds that as humans fashioned new technologies to tackle a specific goal, often these technologies not only changed the way we see ourselves, but changed the way we think.

Before there were maps, people could only draw from their natural surroundings. Yet with the introduction of measuring devices and exploration, maps soon became sophisticated models that helped substitute reality with artificial and intellectual conceptions. This sort of abstract thinking continued to evolve in the late Middle Ages, when Christian monks began to assemble the first mechanical clocks to keep time for the rigorous prayer rituals espoused by their leaders. The desire for accurate time-keeping redefined the way people regimented their lives, and led society out of the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance with the development of the scientific mind.

Carr calls maps, clocks and the other tools we fashion to extend or support our mental powers “intellectual technologies.” These technologies are created to find and classify information, take measurements and perform calculations, and to expand the capacity of our memory. Yet with recent understanding of the brain — including the realm of neuroplasticity, which studies the brain’s ability to “rewire” itself in the face of new stimuli — when it comes to re-shaping our minds, the Internet is shaping up to be the granddaddy of all inventions.

“We create technologies for particular reasons or to achieve particular goals, but often the deepest effects aren’t things that we’ve planned,” Carr says, adding, “the people who create the technologies are not focused on the potential ramifications of their products, they’re focused on immediate goals. And we the people who use the tools are not very good at thinking about how it’s actually going to affect our lives over the long term. We tend to be in love with new stuff, new gadgets and new technologies. We immediately see the benefits, yet it seems to take longer before we realize there are some negatives involved too.”

He cites studies that show reading comprehension may be diminished when we choose a website riddled with hyperlinks, ads and videos over a distraction-free printed page. And this isn’t just affecting our day-to-day lives. Gradually, Carr posits, we are actually changing our brains due to the Internet without us really even knowing.

“This isn’t just a matter of personal choice and personal discipline, as important as those things are,” Carr says. “This is a technology reshaping social norms and social expectations. It becomes harder and harder to sort of back away and choose a different course after it’s already been incorporated into our social, employment and educational processes.”

Carr says the danger in rewiring our brains to crave multi-tasking is that we may shrink the population of people who are the deep thinkers — ones who can focus while tuning out distractions and stimulation. With touch screens, smart phones and social interfacing, the next generation will be even more immersed in technology than even those young enough to remember having the Internet their entire lives. Instead of hesitation for the potential consequences, there is more and more societal pressure building to hop on board with new technology, wherever the tracks may lead.

“We’re happy to sacrifice the contemplative literary mind, and unless we change in some fundamental way how we think about technology and our lives, then I don’t see any impetus for getting off the path we’re on,” Carr says.

In his book and in person Carr readily accepts and embraces the comforts of technology. So rather than shake his fist at the wired generation or lament against the computer, Carr is attempting to be a canary in the coal mine — trying to give ample warning that we should think about the consequences of our choices rather than leaping unknowingly into an unsure future.

As for finding a balance between human needs and technology, Carr says, “I hope we can, but I think if you look at recent trends … we seem to choose distraction and information overload and divided attention over concentration, contemplation, introspection and all the ways of thinking that require attentiveness.”

“If we accept passive acceptance of any new technology, I think in the long run we’re going to realize we lose something important to ourselves and to society,” the author states.

Can our minds adapt and fashion this new technology for our benefit before it’s too late? Possibly, but like the shift from agrarian cues to mechanical time-keeping, or the loss of oral traditions to the Gutenberg printing press, it will be at the expense of previous ways of thinking and problem-solving.

We live in a world with all the information at our fingertips, but we may also be outsourcing our mental capacity to computers while replacing the critical thinking areas of our brains with synapses hungry for anything but.

Carr will appear Jan. 10 at Chautauqua Community House in Boulder.


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