What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
New York: W. W. Norton & Co., June 2011
Writing a book is labor-intensive. It takes months or years of research and concentrated effort at the keyboard to assemble the requisite sentences in some coherent and grammatically correct narrative. I hold in my hands as I read this book evidence that suggests the author may overstate his concern about the fragmenting of attention to which modern digital media subject us.
However, he relates in a digression (pp. 198-200) that he could not achieve the deep concentration required to write the book without going "cold turkey" — shutting down his use of social media, limiting e-mail access, and moving to the mountains of Colorado where there was no cell-phone coverage — all in order to avoid the distractions that made it so difficult to focus on the most important task.
Most everyone today sees first-hand evidence of those distractions: people driving, bicycling or walking with cell phone held to ear, oblivious to some degree of what's going on around them. Evidence less direct is the growth of electronic social networks (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and the forerunner e-mail), which reflects their proliferation through the world's population.
The author posits a broader concern. Citing Marshall McLuhan, he maintains that we are shaped by the nature of our communications medium. In the beginning it was the spoken word, and oral traditions required the memorization of songs, proposals, and tales like Homer's Odyssey for public discourse and performance. Performance reinforced the tradition. The orator Socrates denigrated the introduction of writing as a crutch that would enfeeble human memory, while Plato the writer defended it.
Over the centuries written works proved their worth, preserving for posterity much knowledge that would otherwise have been lost, as well as unique expressions by historical figures from orators like Socrates and Pericles to playwrights like Aristophanes and scholars like Democritus and Thales. But it was only when the perfection of the printing press1 enabled production of books in large volumes that a culture of "deep reading" could arise. Then it became possible for a reader to temporarily dissolve his or her identity into the world created by the author of the book, experiencing in a profound sense the lives and light of other days.2
These abstract experiences are the essence of scholarship; they permit the reader to step away from the daily routine to another point of view. This may be new knowledge imparted by a textbook, a fresh perspective on a social problem like racial segregation, or the compelling vision of a fictional tale. In any case, the life of the reader may sometimes be changed as a result. This is what is lost when the ability for protracted concentration is abandoned.
"We don't constrain our mental powers when we store new long-term memories. We strengthen them. With each expansion of our memory comes an enlargement of our intelligence. The Web provides a convenient and compelling supplement to personal memory, but when we start using the Web as a substitute for personal memory, bypassing the inner processes of consolidation, we risk emptying our minds of their riches."
– Page 192
By now, the idea that attention spans have shrunk to a few seconds has become a cliche. But many seem unaware of how they themselves have changed. Were I to point out that I seldom get to finish a question before they answer what they thought I was going to ask, they wouldn't seem to know what I'm talking about.
But more germane than anecdotes are the numerous volumes that probe this expanding state of distraction, this shrinking of attention spans. I have read a few of them. The common thread that runs through them is that personal computers and networked communications have fostered a culture which devalues memory, introspection and intellectual rigor while promoting the quick, superficial response to every situation. I often think of it as a "war against memory" — but that of course is overblown; it is merely the human tendency to rely too much on technology.
Page 119: "We've reached the point where a Rhodes Scholar like Florida State's Joe O'Shea—a philosophy major, no less—is comfortable admitting not only that he doesn't read books but that he doesn't see any particular need to read them. Why bother, when you can Google the bits and pieces you need in a fraction of a second?"
That's what I'm talking about.
The author imparts a great deal of historical information here: not only the substance of McLuhan's thesis but reports of discoveries in neuroscience that show the extreme plasticity of the organization of the human brain. Contrary to our understanding before the 1960s, neural circuits in the brain do expand or regenerate. Use drives this expansion or regeneration; what we repeatedly experience, whether practical like riding a bike or abstract like studying a foreign language, strengthens the brain pathways that embody that knowledge. Conversely, abandoning an activity leads to the loss of knowledge related to it as the brain repurposes those neurons.
The lesson is clear. Depending on electronic media for memory can only weaken the memories in the brain. In addition, to the extent that our waking lives become devoted to responding to cascades of interruptions in the form of tweets and e-mail messages, we lose our ability to think deeply about one task or subject. We become, in a word, shallow. If I may paraphrase John Donne, every memory's death diminishes us, for memory is involved in mankind.
"The offloading of memory to external data banks doesn't just threaten the depth and distinctiveness of the self. It threatens the depth and distinctiveness of the culture we all share.
*"Culture is more than what Google describes as 'the world's information.' It's more than what can be reduced to binary code and uploaded onto the Net. To remain vital, culture must be renewed in the minds of the members of every generation. Outsource memory, and culture withers."
– Page 196
The author makes his case here quite thoroughly and provides as well a great deal of interesting background information. His work is extensively end-noted. There is a list of suggested reading, organized by chapter, and a good index. He writes well and makes very few errors. I give it full marks and rate it a keeper.