In yesterday’s post I recommended Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows, which takes McLuhan’s theories about communication technologies and brings them up to date with a thorough evaluation of the internet. However, in describing the effect that the internet has had on our brains, Carr does not just draw on theorists like McLuhan, but also on cutting edge discoveries in neuroscience.
Scientists are only just discovering how malleable the human brain actually is. Our brains do not come pre-packaged or hardwired, but have a built-in ability to constantly adapt to the demands of our environment, including the tools we use. By availing himself of all the latest laboratory research, Carr shows that our intellectual technologies do more than merely provide us with the means to transmit and receive information; they actually alter the neurocircuitry in our brains, changing the process of thought itself.
The advent of silent reading is a prime example of this. To be immersed in a book is to tune out all distractions, and this involves creating mental habits that do not come naturally to us. The primitive state of man is to be in a state of constant distractability. In earlier stages of human history, this helped us to survive. By being attentive to the smallest changes in our environment, our distractable brains were critical in avoiding being eaten by a predator or missing a crucial food source. Silent reading goes against the grain of this distractability, since it forces us to give sustained focus to one thing at the exclusion of everything else that is competing for our attention.
The advent of silent reading was not co-temperous with the invention of the book. Originally writing was simply an adjunct of speech and consequently writers did not put spaces between their words. (When you speak you do not pause between each word. “It would never have crossed the minds of the first writers” notes Carr, “to put blank spaces between words. They were simply transcribing speech, writing what their ears told them to write.” Even today when children begin writing, they have to be continually reminded to put spaces between the words.) Scrolls, codices and the first books were written in order to be read aloud. Indeed, before spaces were put between the words, it would have been almost impossible to decipher the meaning of any text without reading it aloud. Even then, the brain’s entire cortex, including the forward areas associated with problem solving and decision making, would have had to be actively engaged, buzzing with neural activity. Prior to the insertion of word spaces, the process of reading was a kind of intensive decoding that would have left little cognitive space for the type of prolonged reflection that we normally associate with reading.
It was not until around the start of the second millennium that monks in Ireland and England began inserting spaces between each word. As the new way of writing spread through Western Europe, silent reading became a popular pastime for those who could afford books. The result of this was that whole new areas of the brain were activated – parts of the brain associated with visual, phonological and semantic information and retrieval. Readers were released from the cognitive burden of having to decode a text and were able, consequently, to devote more time to interpretation, meaning and the richer and deeper ideas that authors began to increasingly explore.
After Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 15th century, books became less expensive and so reading became a popular pursuit for a much larger population. Carr tells us that “According to one estimate, the number of books produced in the fifty years following Gutenberg’s invention equalled the number produced by European scribes during the preceding thousand years.” Consequently, thousands of people began to practice something that comes unnaturally to man: tuning out distractions.
“To read a book was to practice an unnatural process of thought,” Carr observed, “one that demanded sustained, unbroken attention to a single, static object….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.” The developments in art, science and cultural development that came in the Age of the Book were not merely the effect of the proliferation of knowledge, but resulted from the type of linear and sequential thinking that book reading trains us in. Moreover, the development of knowledge “became an increasingly private act, with each reader creating, in his own mind, a personal synthesis of the ideas and information passed down through the writings of other thinkers.”
If silent reading works against our natural predisposition is to constantly shift our gaze, and hence our attention, from one object to another, the internet does just the opposite: it feeds our propensity for distraction. From pop-ups, to animations, to email notification to hyperlinks, the internet is designed to distract us from one thing to focus our attention onto something else. (Think about the purpose of a hyperlink: it doesn’t simply reference other works like the footnotes in a book: a hyperlink actually propels us towards the new source. The purpose of a hyperlink is to distract and their value as navigational tools cannot be separated from the distractions they cause.) When we go online, we enter an ecosystem of distraction.
In short, the internet seizes our attention, but it does so only to scatter it amid a cacophony of stimuli. The rapid-fire delivery of competing messages and options means that the net-user is inundated by mental stimulation. By design the net is an interruption system, a machine geared for dividing attention, creating a hunger for what Carr calls, “small, rapidly dispensed pieces of information.”
By coalescing a variety of interruption technologies and harnessing them into a single medium, the net pulls on our brain in the exact opposite way to a book. Significantly, Carr notes, “never has there been a medium that, like the Net, has been programmed to so widely scatter our attention and to do it so insistently.” This can be seen in the way people read online, in comparison to the way they read a conventional book. “[W]hen we go online,” writes Carr, “we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning.”
The net’s hegemony over our brains is not limited merely to the time we spend online. It is obvious that our minds work on our intellectual tools, but cognitive scientists are discovering that our intellectual tools also work on our minds, subtly changing our brains to adapt themselves to our tools’ requirements. Sometimes this can be seen in obvious ways: many people testify that when they are away from their computer or i-phone there is a sense of needing to be connected, to be able to check emails, click links and do googling. The net “turns us into lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment,” and we do not feel right when we do not have access to such nourishment.
But the net is also changing our thinking in more subtle ways, as our brains morph to embody the staccato quality encouraged by the net. We skim and scroll through disconnected frames of life exactly like we do on the internet. Our brains are being trained to be easily distracted by ‘irrelevant environmental stimuli” and we carry with us the effects of this training even when we are not in front of the computer. The calm, focused, undistracted and the linear mind of the silent reader is being pushed aside by what Carr calls, “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.”
Put another way, the net makes us skilful at being superficial, having knowledge that is expansive but doesn’t run very deep. The asset about living life in the shallows is that you can get around very quickly. The liability is that you can’t go very deep.