The Internet and Neuroscience

In yesterday’s post I summarized some of the argument from Nicholas Carr’s fascinating book The Shallows in which he explains the difference that different types of reading have on the brain.

So when it comes to reading online, a question we must ask is whether there really is that much difference between reading a webpage and reading a book? Carr shows that there is a huge difference. We read webpages differently to how we read books. We read books cover to cover, and even when we scan it tends to have a sequential quality to it. But research has shown that the average person does not read a webpage from left to right and from top to bottom. They skip around, scanning for relevant information. This helps to explain why our minds get information overload looking at just a few webpages, and yet we do not tend to get cognitive overload in a library of thousands of books. The books allow us to take our time and work through them slowly. They encourage slow reflection. By contrast, webpages invite distraction and put our minds in fast gear.

The brain of the net-user begins to demand to be fed in the way the internet feeds it, with the result that he begins to find silent reading a difficult chore. Joe O’Shea, a former president of the student body at Florida State University and a 2008 recipient of a Rhodes Scholarship, once said that he had given up reading books. “I don’t read books,” he noted. “I go to Google, and I can absorb relevant information quickly.” By becoming “a skilled hunter” online, books become superfluous. “Sitting down and going through a book from cover to cover doesn’t make sense…I can get all the information I need faster through the Web.”

But the evidence for how the internet is changing our brains is not just anecdotal. One of the reasons that The Shallows makes such fascinating reading is because Carr gets inside the brain to explain scientifically exactly what is going on when we enter the online environment. He shows how our use of google, email and websites is actually altering the chemical flows in our synapses, leading to change in the physiological structures of the neurons in our brains.

Brain scans of net users show that just five hours on the internet is enough to rewire the brain of a new user. Book reading engages the activity of the brain associated with language, memory, and not much activity in the prefrontal regions associated with decision making and problem solving. On the other hand, “The need to evaluate links and make related navigational choices, while also processing a multiplicity of fleeting sensory stimuli, requires constant mental coordination and decision making, distracting the brain from the work of interpreting text or other information.” The subtle redirection of our brain from reading to making judgments engages the executive functions of the prefrontal cortex and has a huge casualty in comprehension and retention.  We exchange the calm mind of the book reader for the buzzing mind of the internet user, and in the process we lose much of our evaluative and memory skills.

“One thing is clear”, writes Carr, “if, knowing what we know today about the brain’s plasticity, you were to set out to invent a medium that would rewire our mental circuits as quickly and thoroughly as possible, you would probably end up designing something that looks and works a lot like the Internet. It’s not just that we tend to use the Net regularly, even obsessively. It’s that the Net delivers precisely the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli – repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive – that has been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions.”

Though The Shallows isn’t alarmist, the book does contain some sobering predictions of what will happen when all information – including information previously only accessible in books – is digitized. This is because, “When the Net absorbs a medium, it re-creates that medium in its own image.”

The point is not that people need to stop using the internet. Since the internet is now so interconnected with our lives and employment, most people will not have the option of simply switching offline. Even the book’s author has confessed that he is an internet junky. However, the point is that by being aware of the neurological effects of online activity, we can begin to find ways to mitigate its power over us. The book could have been improved by including specific strategies on how to do this. Nevertheless, by so clearly diagnosing the problem, The Shallows provides a valuable starting place in rejecting the net’s mastery over our brains.

Further Reading

McLuhan and the Internet

More About The Shallows

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