Marsha White in her normal and natural state. A wooden lady with a painted face who, one month out of the year, takes on the characteristics of someone as normal and as flesh and blood as you and I. - Twilight Zone: The After Hours (1960) (Video)
Nicholas Carr — author of last July’s Atlantic cover story, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” — believes the distracted nature of Web surfing is reducing our capacity for deep contemplation and reflection. He began developing his theory when he realized that, after years of online information gathering, he had trouble reading a book or a magazine. As he puts it, “I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. . . . I’m not thinking the way I used to think.”
Cooper: You’ve quoted Richard Foreman, author of the play The Gods Are Pounding My Head, who says we are turning into “pancake people.”
Carr: We used to have an intellectual ideal that we could contain within ourselves the whole of civilization. It was very much an ideal — none of us actually fulfilled it — but there was this sense that, through wide reading and study, you could have a depth of knowledge and could make unique intellectual connections among the pieces of information stored within your memory. Foreman suggests that we might be replacing that model — for both intelligence and culture — with a much more superficial relationship to information in which the connections are made outside of our own minds through search engines and hyperlinks. We’ll become “pancake people,” with wide access to information but no intellectual depth, because there’s little need to contain information within our heads when it’s so easy to find with a mouse click or two.
Cooper: In your Atlantic article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” you suggest that using the Internet has actually lessened your ability to concentrate while reading. What led you to this conclusion?
Carr: I was having trouble sitting down and immersing myself in a book, something that used to be totally natural to me. When I read, my mind wanted to behave the way it behaves when I’m online: jumping from one piece of information to another, clicking on links, checking e-mail, and generally being distracted. I had a growing feeling that the Internet was programming me to do these things and pushing on me a certain mode of thinking: on the one hand, distracted; on the other hand, efficient and able to move quickly from one piece of information to another. In the article, I focused on Google because it’s the dominant presence on the Net — at least, when it comes to gathering information. It provides a window into how the Internet is imposing its own intellectual ethic on its users at both a technological and an economic level.
Cooper: Is there any real evidence that the Internet is “rewiring” our brains?
Carr: There’s certainly a lot of evidence that the brain readily adapts to experience — that our neural circuits are “plastic,” as scientists say. And we’re starting to see direct evidence that Internet use alters brain function. There was a fascinating study done in 2008 by Gary Small, who heads the UCLA Memory and Aging Research Center and recently published a book called iBrain. He and two of his colleagues scanned the brains of two dozen people as they searched the Internet: half the subjects lacked online experience, and the other half were experienced Web users. The researchers found very different patterns of brain activity between the two groups. The subjects with little experience on the Internet showed activity in the language, memory, and visual centers of the brain, which is typical of people who are reading. The experienced Web surfers, on the other hand, had more activity in the decision-making areas at the front of the brain. Interestingly, after five consecutive days of Web surfing, the brain activity of the “inexperienced” group began to match the activity of the experienced Web users. That indicates that the brain adapts very quickly to Net use, just as it does to other repeated stimuli.
Now, there’s good news and bad news here. The good news is that, if you’re older, using the Net may help keep you mentally sharp. It “exercises” the brain in the way that, as Dr. Small observed, solving crossword puzzles does. On the other hand, neurology experiments demonstrate that decision-making consumes a lot of your mental resources, leaving less available for other modes of thinking. That may be why it’s so hard to read deeply when we’re online — our brains literally become overloaded. Imagine trying to read a book while simultaneously working on a crossword puzzle. That’s the intellectual environment of the Web.
Computing The Cost
Nicholas Carr On How The Internet Is Rewiring Our Brains
Is Google Making Us Stupid?