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The Shallows by Nicholas Carr – the internet and your brain

Leigh Turner
Leigh Turner

“The Shallows” by Nicholas Carr explores why you should put your smartphone in another room, turn off your computer, and put your arms around a human being instead. You know this already. But “The Shallows” spells exactly how much harm the Internet is doing to us every minute of every day.

The Shallows: how the Internet is changing the way we think

The subtitle of The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr, is “How the Internet is changing the way we think, read and remember.” It does what it says on the tin.

The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

Can our brains change?

Nicholas Carr starts by examining whether experiences can change our brains. The answer is an unambiguous “yes”. As one of many examples, he cites the brains of London cab-drivers. Required to memorise London’s entire street-map in a test known as “The Knowledge”, they develop greater spatial awareness than others.

“When a ditchdigger trades his shovel for a backhoe,” Carr writes, “his arm muscles weaken even as his efficiency increases. A similar trade-off may well take place as we automate the work of the mind.”

The book explores past revolutions in the way humans interact with information – from the invention of writing, through the evolution of maps and clocks, to the arrival of the printing press. At each stage, people expressed concern that new-fangled technology would bring not only gains but also harmful effects.

What’s that damage this time? Nicholas Carr’s primary thesis is that our interaction with computers and phones erodes our ability to concentrate on anything. At the same time, it fosters shallow thinking and encourages us to flit from one thing to another.

“The Shallows”: a long debate

Nicholas Carr quotes the Egyptian King Thamus, resisting the spread of writing, in Plato’s Phaedrus written in 400 B.C.:

  • “Should the Egyptians learn to write… it will implant forgetfulness in their souls: they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written”

He cites concerns about the invention of printing in the 1600s:

  • Priests and politicians began to wonder whether, as England’s first official book censor put it in 1660, “more mischief than advantage were not occasion’d to the Christian world by the Invention of Typography.”

And he quotes David Sarnoff, a media mogul, in Marshall McLuhan’s seminal 1955 Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man. Sarnoff’s defence of TV echoes the way today’s internet firms say information they spread is nothing to do with them:

  • We are too prone to make technological instruments the scapegoats for the sins of those who wield them. The products of modern science are not in themselves good or bad; it is the way they are used that determines their value.”

Reading is good

Books and Leigh Turner
How to train your brain

By contrast, Nicholas Carr argues, the focus and attention required to read a book enhances our brain:

  • Research into… the neurological effects of deep reading… [using] brain scans… found… The brain regions that are activated often “mirror those involved when people perform, imagine or observe similar real-world activities.” Deep reading, says the study’s lead researcher, Nicole Speer, “is by no means a passive exercise.” The reader becomes the book.
  • As our ancestors imbued their mind with the discipline to follow a line of argument or narrative through a succession of printed pages, they became more contemplative, reflective and imaginative. “New thought came more readily to a brain that had already learned how to rearrange itself to read.”

Internet use makes it hard to concentrate

Carr explores how browsing the Internet changes both the way we interact with information, and our brains:

  • What we’re trading away in return for the riches of the net – and only a curmudgeon would refuse to see the riches – is what Karp calls “our old linear thought process.” 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.
  • The Net causes extensive brain changes. “The current explosion of digital technology not only is changing the way we live and communicate but is rapidly and profoundly altering our brains…” The daily use of computers, smartphones, search engines and other such tools “stimulates brain cell alteration and neurotransmitter release, gradually strengthening new neural pathways while weakening old ones.”
  • Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, educators and Web designers point to the same conclusion: when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. It’s possible to think deeply while surfing the Net, just as it’s possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but that’s not the type of thinking technology encourages and rewards.
  • Whereas the Xerox researcher [who had praised the ability of computers to allow multitasking] “was eager to juggle multiple threads of work simultaneously,” the sceptical questioner viewed his own work “as an exercise in solitary, singleminded concentration.” In the choices we have made, consciously or not, about how we use our computers, we have rejected the intellectual tradition of solitary, single-minded concentration, the ethic that the book bestowed on us. We have cast our lot with the juggler.

“Try reading a book while doing a crossword puzzle,” Nicholas Carr says. “That’s the intellectual environment of the Internet.”

“The Shallows” by Nicholas Carr: how the internet affects your brain

Nicholas Carr presents examples:

  • Another researcher… had groups of people read the same piece of online writing, but she varied the number of links included in the passage. She then tested the readers’ comprehension by asking them to write a summary of what they had read and complete a multiple-choice test. She found that comprehension declined as the number of links increased. Readers were forced to devote more and more of their attention and brain power to evaluating the links and deciding whether to click on them. That left less attention and fewer cognitive resources to devote to understanding what they were reading.
  • The near-continuous stream of new information pumped out by the Web also plays to our natural tendency to ‘vastly overvalue what happens to use right now,’ as Union College psychologist Christopher Chabris explains. ‘We crave the new even when we know that the new is often more trivial than essential.
  • Beyond the influx of personal messages – not only e-mail but also instant messages… the Web increasingly supplies us with all manner of other automated notifications… feed readers… news aggregators… social networks… In addition to flooding our working memory with information, the juggling imposes what brain scientists call “switching costs’ on our cognition. Every time we shift our attention, our brain has to reorient itself, further taxing our mental resources.
  • Müller and Pilzecker concluded that it takes an hour or so for memories to become fixed, or “consolidated,” in the brain… Any disruption, whether a jab to the head or a simple distraction, can sweep the nascent memories from the mind.
  • The influx of competing messages that we receive whenever we go online not only overloads our working memory; it makes it much harder for our frontal lobes to concentrate our attention on any one thing. The process of memory consolidation can’t even get started. And, thanks once again to the plasticity of our neuronal pathways, the more we use the Web, the more we train our brain to be distracted.

Scary examples of how phones damage our lives

We’ve all read somewhere about phones reducing your ability to concentrate on anything. The Shallows comes up with concrete studies on which that belief is based:

  • 500… students were given two standard tests of intellectual acuity. One gauged “working memory capacity,” the mind’s ability to focus its cognitive power on a task. The second assessed “fluid intelligence,” the mind’s ability to interpret and solve an unfamiliar problem. The only variable in the experiment was the location of the subjects’ smartphones. Some of the students were asked to place their phones on their desks, screen side down; others were told to stow their phones in their pockets or handbags; still others were required to leave their phones in a different room. In all cases, the phones were put into do-not-disturb mode, so they would neither ring nor vibrate during the exercise… in both tests, the subjects whose phones were in view scored the worst scores, while those who left their phones in a different room did the best. The students who kept their phones in their pockets or bags came out in the middle.
  • In a 2013 study… 142 people were divided into pairs and asked to converse in private for ten minutes. Half talked with a phone in the room, half without. The participants were then given tests of affinity, trust and empathy. “The mere presence of mobile phones,” the researchers reported, “inhibited the development of interpersonal closeness and trust” and diminished “the extent to which individuals felt empathy and understanding from their partners.”

How phones and the internet give us what we want

The reason we find our phones and the internet so addictive, Nicholas Carr says, is that they give us what we crave:

  • In selecting targets of attention, the [brain’s] network gives priority to four types of stimuli: those that are novel or unexpected, those that are pleasurable or otherwise rewarding, those that are personally relevant, and those that are emotionally engaging. These are exactly the kinds of stimuli our smartphones supply – all the time and in abundance.
  • Even in the long history of mesmerizing media, the smartphone stands out. It’s an attention magnet unlike any our minds have had to grapple with before. It acts as what Ward calls a “supernormal stimulus” that is able to “hijack” attention whenever it’s part of the surroundings – and it’s always part of the surroundings. With the smartphone, the human race has succeeded in creating the most interesting thing in the world. No wonder we can’t take our minds off it.

Does the internet undermine our ability to make our own decisions?

Finally in The Shallows, Nicholas Carr looks at how the internet can narrow, rather than widen, our perspectives. On the internet, algorithms guide us in what we are seeing, far more than is the case with traditional media.

What if you choose something on Netflix? Netflix encourages you to watch what it wants you to watch. If you browse for books on Amazon, Amazon tries to sell you certain books. When you search on Google, the search engine nudges you to look at certain – often paid-for – content.

My very purchase of The Shallows is an example of this. I went into a bookshop in The Hague, browsed the shelves, and found the book. I’d never heard of it before. My chances of finding this book by browsing Amazon would have been nil.

Nicholas Carr does not deny the immense value of the internet. But he expresses concern at what it is doing to our brains:

  • Automated information-filtering tools, such as search engines, tend to serve as amplifiers of popularity, quickly establishing and then continually reinforcing a consensus about what information is important and what isn’t. And:
  • Before [19thC productivity guru] Frederick Taylor introduced his system of scientific management, the individual laborer, drawing on his training, knowledge and experience, would make his own decisions about how he did his work. He would write his own script. After Taylor, the laborer followed a script written by someone else… When we go online we, too, are following scripts written by others – algorithmic instructions that few of us would be able to understand even if the hidden codes were revealed to us. When we search for information through Google, we’re following a script. When we look at a product recommended to us by Amazon or Netflix, we’re following a script… These scripts can be ingenious and extraordinarily useful, as they were in the Taylorist factories. But they also mechanize the messy processes of intellectual exploration and even social attachment.

Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows”: some conclusions

The Shallows was first published in 2010, and republished in 2020. It remains relevant, as one reviewer writes:

  • Nicholas Carr has written an important and timely book. See if you can stay off the Web long enough to read it!”.

Many of us have wondered whether Google Maps is eroding our sense of direction. It’s great to have a few facts and figures to back up our suspicions. Nor does Nicholas Carr even go into what I consider the greatest cost of the internet. This is that the hysterical tone of much of the debate there whips up rage and destroys wisdom. I explore this in my post The Internet is dangerous.

For now, many of us remain comfortably addicted. I certainly am – I spend several hours a day staring at social media on my phone. But it is good to remind yourself of the risks this involves.

Just in case you need cheering up

In Greece with a good book, 1980s

Despite the rather gloomy tenor of this post, I remain overall an optimist about the world. Two posts on this site point out why:

Finally, I commend Vintage Season – a story for a coronavirus outbreak. Suppose you thought you were living in the worst of times, but were actually enjoying a golden age?

P.S. to see my own books, click below.

Leigh Turner books


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