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'The Shallows': This Is Your Brain Online

Try reading a book while doing a crossword puzzle, and that, says author Nicholas Carr, is what you're doing every time you use the Internet.

Carr is the author of the Atlantic article Is Google Making Us Stupid? which he has expanded into a book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.

Carr believes that the Internet is a medium based on interruption -- and it's changing the way people read and process information. We've come to associate the acquisition of wisdom with deep reading and solitary concentration, and he says there's not much of that to be found online.

Chronic Distraction

Carr started research for The Shallows after he noticed a change in his own ability to concentrate.

"I'd sit down with a book, or a long article," he tells NPR's Robert Siegel, "and after a couple of pages my brain wanted to do what it does when I'm online: check e-mail, click on links, do some Googling, hop from page to page."

This chronic state of distraction "follows us" Carr argues, long after we shut down our computers.

"Neuroscientists and psychologists have discovered that, even as adults, our brains are very plastic," Carr explains. "They're very malleable, they adapt at the cellular level to whatever we happen to be doing. And so the more time we spend surfing, and skimming, and scanning ... the more adept we become at that mode of thinking."

Would You Process This Information Better On Paper?

The book cites many studies that indicate that online reading yields lower comprehension than reading from a printed page. Then again, reading online is a relatively recent phenomenon, and a generation of readers who grow up consuming everything on the screen may simply be more adept at online reading than people who were forced to switch from print.

Still, Carr argues that even if people get better at hopping from page to page, they will still be losing their abilities to employ a "slower, more contemplative mode of thought." He says research shows that as people get better at multitasking, they "become less creative in their thinking."

The idea that the brain is a kind of zero sum game -- that the ability to read incoming text messages is somehow diminishing our ability to read Moby Dick -- is not altogether self-evident. Why can't the mind simply become better at a whole variety of intellectual tasks?

Carr says it really has to do with practice. The reality -- especially for young people -- is that online time is "crowding out" the time that might otherwise be spent in prolonged, focused concentration.

"We're seeing this medium, the medium of the Web, in effect replace the time that we used to spend in different modes of thinking," Carr says.

The Natural State Of Things?

Carr admits he's something of a fatalist when it comes to technology. He views the advent of the Internet as "not just technological progress but a form of human regress."

Human ancestors had to stay alert and shift their attention all the time; cavemen who got too wrapped up in their cave paintings just didn't survive. Carr acknowledges that prolonged, solitary thought is not the natural human state, but rather "an aberration in the great sweep of intellectual history that really just emerged with [the] technology of the printed page."

The Internet, Carr laments, simply returns us to our "natural state of distractedness."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.