The Shallows What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr PDF Print E-mail
In the Library


The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr


altRecently, Jon’s orthopedic surgeon expressed his frustration over his children’s constant preoccupation with keeping in touch with their “friends” and with a world of information via texting, Facebook, Twitter, blogging, and surfing the Web. He went on to express his summation of the world of information as being far different than wisdom, which he defined as acquired from reading books, reflecting, and thinking deeply—something that children, and young people in general, no longer pursue. In fact, he thinks today’s youth are just plain foolish and despairingly lamented that he did not see any resolution to the problem and thus felt the demise of our country inevitable.


Being disturbed by the trend we see in the alteration of people’s concentration and their incessant infatuation with their new technological toys has led to further contemplation of the implications of this phenomena. But even more disturbing is users’ need to feel connected to burgeoning number of individuals who provide nothing more than superficial relationships, whose irrelevant chatter has taken precedence over meaningful dialogue, while distracted chaos supplants deep thinking. Consequently, an increase in fidgeting, lack of concentration, and boredom with meaty conversations has permeated even children within the homeschooling community. As the author of The Shallows poignantly states, we have entered into the “dark age of mediocrity and narcissism.


Following Jon’s sermons, we gather to discuss his message and other serious matters. At one of these gatherings, Diane Drinkard brought up a book she had begun reading titled The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr.Jon and I were so intrigued with the information she relayed to us that we had Sonia request it from the library. Soon afterwards however, the Drinkard family presented us with our own copy so that we could highlight important points.


Thankful for our own copy, I read this book in two days; its contents have continually seasoned Jon’s most recent sermons and many conversations with others. This author’s discovery that his own mind was becoming more detached led him to investigate the source of his growing failure to concentrate. What he uncovered is frightening because we can see the ramifications of the debasing process of our senses even in the homeschooling families around us.


While the masses herald the Internet as “a new golden age of access and participation,” we concur with others’ lamentations over this “new dark age of mediocrity and narcissism” because we are witnessing the rapid decline of our families’ ability to concentrate and think through issues. In our way of thinking, this new age of media is actually transforming who we are into creatures we were never meant to be.


The supposedly benign information highway deceives us into thinking how much faster we can gain access to information, thus saving us time in the long run, when in truth it has become a tyrant, which not only tyrannizes our time, but also compromises our intellectual ability.


Furthermore, the very tool that is touted for keeping us in touch is creating a very cold, impersonal, detached society. Replacing human interaction, it drives individuals to become more self-absorbed with it and themselves, to the point that one hardly has time to catch one’s breath before another session of frenzied searching and relaying of narcissism continues. Even in restaurants where patrons pay a premium for fine dining—once the biblical venue for discipling and fellowshipping—we see family members sitting across from one another in silence as they text, read texts, and search, continuously search for something more than what they possess right in front of them.


Not ones to text, twitter, or spend time on Facebook, our family finds this continual self-absorption to be bizarre! It is almost as if we have stepped into a warped time zone, where everyone is foolishly wasting precious time with machines that have no souls, and in return, lose their own.


Carefully consider what the author of The Shallows shares that over the past few years he possesses an uncomfortable sense that someone or something has been tinkering with his brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. He goes on to explain that I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I feel it most strongly when I’m reading. I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article. My mind would get caught up in the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, and begin looking for something else to do.


The author goes on to point out similar disclosures, one of which includes Bruce Friedman, who blogs about the use of computers in medicine, has also described how the Internet is altering his mental habits. His thinking, he said, has taken on a ‘staccato’ quality, reflecting the way he quickly scans short passages of text from many sources online. ‘I can’t read War and Peace anymore’ he admitted. ‘I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.


As if this were not bad enough, the author discovered that the men who realize that true knowledge comes from reading and contemplating books, say that the benefits they get from using the Net-quick access to loads of information…make up for the loss of their ability to sit still and turn the pages of a book. They ‘know they’ve sacrificed something important, but they wouldn’t go back to the way things used to be.’


Documenting a vast number of studies, Nicholas Carr thoroughly substantiates the devastating consequences the Internet is having on the minds of our families. Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts—the faster, the better.


Yet in order to think deeply, the brain must continually make deep connections. These connections are made only when one spends time reading, meditating, reflecting, and passing on what it learned. Without these deep connections, we become incapable of solving problems.


The author goes on to talk about the importance of reading.What was so remarkable about book reading was that the deep concentration was combined with the highly active and efficient deciphering of text and interpretation of meaning. The reading of a sequence of printed pages was valuable not just for the knowledge readers acquired from the author’s words but for the way those words set off intellectual vibrations within their own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the prolonged, undistracted reading of a book, people made their own associations, drew their own inferences and analogies, fostered their own ideas. They thought deeply as they read deeply…Readers disengaged their attention from the outward flow of passing stimuli in order to engage it more deeply with an inward flow of words, ideas, and emotions.


He goes on to reveal these shocking statistics:In the beginning of 2009, the average American cell phone user was sending or receiving nearly 400 texts a month…the average teen 2,272. The time Americans devote to TV is 153 hours a month. Avid TV fans spend thirty or more hours online a week. Most Americans spend at least eight and a half hours a day looking at a television, a computer monitor, or the screen of their mobile phone.


Christine Rosen, a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC, recently wrote about her experience using a Kindle to read the Dickens novel Nichols Nickleby. Although mildly disorienting at first, I quickly adjusted to the Kindle’s screen and mastered the scroll and page-turn buttons. Nevertheless, my eyes were restless and jumped around as they do when I try to read for a sustained time on the computer. I find it remarkably hard to concentrate. I scroll back and forth, search for key words, and interrupt myself even more often than usual to refill my coffee cup, check my e-mail, check the news, and rearrange files in my desk drawer. Eventually I get through the book and am glad to have done so. But a week later I find it remarkably hard to remember what I have read.


When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. 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.


Gary Small, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA says the current explosion of digital technology not only is changing the way we live and communicate, but is rapidly and profoundly altering our brains.


Maryanne Wolf says, we sacrifice the facility that makes deep reading possible. We revert to being mere decoders of information. Our ability to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply, and without distraction, remain largely disengaged.


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.


The information flowing into our working memory at any given moment is called our ‘cognitive load.’ When the load exceeds our mind’s ability to store and process the information—when the water overflows the thimble—we’re unable to retain the information or to draw connections with the information already stored in our long-term memory. We can’t translate the new information into schemas. Our ability to learn suffers and our understanding remains shallow. As we reach the limits of our working memory, it becomes harder to distinguish relevant information from irrelevant information, signal from noise. We become mindless consumers of data…a weakening of our capacities for the kind of deep processing that underpins mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination and reflection…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.


To Augustine, memory was a vast and infinite profundity, a reflection of the power of God in man. When William James declared that the art of remembering is the art of thinking, he was stating the obvious. Now, his word seems old-fashioned. Not only has memory lost its divinity; it’s well on its way to losing its humanness.


The key to memory consolidation is attentiveness. Storing explicit memories and equally important, forming connections between them, requires strong mental concentration, amplified by repetition or by intense intellectual or emotional engagement. The sharper the attention, the sharper the memory. For a memory to persist, writes Kandel, the incoming information must be thoroughly and deeply processed. This is accomplished by attending to the information and associating it meaningfully and systematically with knowledge already well established in memory. If we’re unable to attend to the information in our working memory the information lasts only as long as the neurons that hold it maintain their electric charge—a few seconds as best. Then it’s gone, leaving little or no trace in the mind.


Playwright Richard Foreman eloquently described what’s at stake, ‘I come from a tradition of Western culture,’ he wrote, ‘in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and cathedral-like structure of the highly educated and articulate personality—a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West.’ But now, he continued, ‘I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self-evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the ‘instantly available.’ As we are drained of our ‘inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance,’ Foreman concluded, we risk turning into ‘pancake people—spread wide and thin as we connect with the vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.’


Culture is more than the aggregate of 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.


Marshall McLuhan, who was Culkin’s intellectual mentor, elucidated the ways our technologies at once strengthen and sap us. In one of the most perceptive, if least remarked, passages in Understanding Media, McLuhan wrote that our tools end up ‘numbing’ whatever part of our body they ‘amplify.’ When we extend some part of ourselves artificially, we also distance ourselves from the amplified part and its natural functions. When the power loom was invented, weavers could manufacture far more cloth during the course of a workday than they’d been able to make by hand, but they sacrificed some of the manual dexterity, not to mention some of their ‘feel’ for fabric. Their fingers, in McLuhan’s terms, became numb. Farmers, similarly, lost some of their feel for the soil when they began using mechanical harrows and plows. Today’s industrial farm worker, sitting in his air-conditioned cage atop a gargantuan tractor, rarely touches the soil at all—though in a single day he can till a field that his hoe-wielding forebear could not have turned in a month.


As McLuhan acknowledged, he was far from the first to observe technology’s numbing effect. It’s an ancient idea, one that was given perhaps its most eloquent and ominous expression by the Old Testament psalmist: Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hand. They have mouths, but they speak not; eyes have they, but they see not; they have ears, but they hear not; noses have they but they smell not; they have hands, but they handle not; feet have they, but they walk not; neither speak they through their throat. They that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them.


The price we pay to assume technology’s power is alienation. The toll can be particularly high with our intellectual technologies. The tools of the mind amplify and in turn numb the most intimate, the most human, of our natural capacities—those for reason, perception, memory, emotion.


The author concludes from his own experience. When I began writing The Shallows, toward the end of 2007, I struggled in vain to keep my mind fixed on the task. The Net provided, as always, a bounty of useful information and research tools, but its constant interruptions scattered my thoughts and words. I tended to write in disconnected spurts, the same way I wrote when blogging. It was clear that big changes were in order. In the summer of the following year, I moved with my wife from a highly connected suburb of Boston to the mountains of Colorado. There was no cell phone service at our new home, and the Internet arrived through a relatively poky DSL connection. I cancelled my Twitter account, put my Facebook membership on hiatus, and moth-balled my blog. I shut down my RSS reader and curtailed my skyping and instant messaging. Most important, I throttled back my e-mail application. It had long been set to check for new messages every minute. I reset it to check only once an hour, and when that still created too much of a distraction, I began keeping the program closed much of the day.


The dismantling of my online life was far from painless. For months, my synapses howled for their Net fix. I found myself sneaking clicks on the ‘check for new mail’ button. Occasionally, I’d go on a daylong Web binge. But in time the cravings subsided, and I found myself able to type at my keyboard for hours on end or to read through a dense academic paper without my mind wandering. Some old, disused neural circuits were springing back to life, it seemed, and some of the newer, Web-wired ones were quieting down. I started to feel generally calmer and more in control of my thoughts—less like a lab rat pressing a lever and more like, well, a human being. My brain could breathe again.


Shortly after I finished reading The Shallows, I began reading In the Divine Conquest to Sonia. In this book, author A. W. Tozer makes this timeless poignant statement: “In my creature impatience I am often caused to wish that there were some way to bring modern Christians into a deeper spiritual life painlessly by short easy lessons; but such wishes are vain. No short cut exists. God has not bowed to our nervous haste nor embraced the methods of our machine age. It is well that we accept the hard truth now: the man who would know God must give time to Him. He must count no time wasted, which is spent in the cultivation of His acquaintance. He must give himself to meditation and prayer hours on end.”


To know God, we must spend undistracted, long periods of time reading His Word, and other books, that deeply engage our minds on His doctrines. Then we must spend more periods of time on meditation, reflection, and application to our lives. It is the only way to think God’s thoughts after Him.


Jon and I would strongly encourage you to read Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains to your family, and then implement limitations on your family’s use of the Internet.


With clear determination and purpose we have never allowed our own children to text, Twitter, blog, Google, or use Facebook. Our limited Internet use encompasses a narrow scope for managing our monies, managing CHEF through answering emails and placing helpful information on our website, gathering scriptures for sermons, and purchasing a few specific items for our business and personal use. And our dining is filled with engaging conversation as we disciple our children to think God’s thoughts clearly and accurately.


Time is too precious to spend on superfluous verbiage and on narcissistic endeavors. Leaders are readers, thinkers, problem solvers, and producers. So if we continue to engage in intellectual depth of inductive analysis, critical thinking, reflection, and application, our children will leave the liberals in the dust and go on to win the race for taking dominion of this world for God’s glory through applying His truths to all areas of life.


Which brings us to another concern related to this new phenomenon, which is presented in the following article from Liberty Mutual’s Liberty Lines Summer 2012 mailer.