According to the dominant view, our brains have considerable plasticity, the ability to rewire in adaptation to the ways we typically use them. This can be quite a good thing, of course, but Nicholas Carr wants us to understand that a brain that can acquire new habits can just as easily lose old ones.
His recent bestseller The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, traces the development of the major language technologies that have transformed not only our cultures but also, more importantly for his thesis, the very ways our brains work.
He picks out language as the key element: “Because language is, for human beings, the primary vessel of conscious thought, particularly higher forms of thought, the technologies that restructure language tend to exert the strongest influence over our intellectual lives.”
Although neuroplasticity provides an escape from genetic determinism, a loophole for free thought and free will, it also imposes its own form of determinism on our behavior. As particular circuits in our brain strengthen through the repetition of a physical or mental activity, they begin to transform that activity into a habit.
At each major turn in our language history, the ways we structure and understand the world changed. From alliterative and rhyming oral histories, to early writing, from readable separate word script to the printing press, from quill pens to typewriters, and now to the internet — each technological advance changed our external relationship with words and ideas, and each restructured our brain circuits in response.
There is of course a long tradition of shrill and dire warnings about the evils inherent in the future coming from adherents to the ways of the past. Socrates decried the spread of the written word, fearing the end of real intelligence, which he defined in terms of the manipulation of memory. The Catholic Church persecuted those who translated the Bible into a language that an enthralled congregation could read for themselves. And every generation is convinced that the intellectual and moral weaknesses of the next generation signal the coming end of civilization itself.
Carr acknowledges all of this but contends that the spread of the internet constitutes such a fundamental and pervasive shift in the ways we access, process, and understand information that his warnings rise above the standard “the old ways are better” lament.
Carr uses the new research on brain plasticity to reject the instrumentalist view of technology, in which our tools exist only to serve our ends, without purposes of their own. Instead, Carr supports a kind of “technological determinism.” Of course, technologies don’t have ends of “their own,” other than in metaphor. But they do operate mindlessly to reframe us, nonetheless. Carr writes:
It isn’t an overstatement to say that progress has its own logic, which is not always consistent with the intentions or wishes of the toolmakers and tool users. Sometimes our tools do what we tell them to. Other times, we adapt ourselves to our tools’ requirements.
One example Carr uses is the apparently minor introduction of spaces between words in written texts. This small change made comprehension so much easier, Carr argues, that reading could become for the first time a silent, solitary activity. One result was the modern library, where single scholars worked on individual research. This “quiet, solitary research became a prerequisite for intellectual achievement. Originality of thought and creativity of expression became the hallmarks of the model mind.”
And, Carr says, the scholar’s brain had to learn how to employ this new skill. Old memory circuits were disconnected or downgraded in favour of new pathways which maximized the kinds of intellectual attention and processing needed for silent reading.
In other words, our brains adapted to “our tools’ requirements.”
And now we have the internet, which dramatically reshapes and reorganizes our relationship with words and information. This reality is also one of the core subjects of James Gleick’s The Information, also reviewed here. Carr writes of the internet’s impact on the way we read:
When the Net absorbs a medium, it re-creates that medium in its own image. It not only dissolves the medium‘s physical form; it injects the medium‘s content with hyperlinks, breaks up the content into searchable chunks, and surrounds the content with the content of all the other media it has absorbed. All these changes in the form of the content also change the way we use, experience, and even understand the content.
Carr’s contention is supported by brain research:
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 have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions.
Carr warns that the impact of the internet is, if not unprecedented, at least hugely important:
With the exception of alphabets and number systems, the Net may well be the single most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use. At the very least, it’s the most powerful that has come along since the book.
Carr writes that “the world of the screen, as we’re already coming to understand, is a very different place from the world of the page … [and] the pathways of our brains are once again being rerouted.” He explains:
By combining many different kinds of information on a single screen, the multimedia Net further fragments content and disrupts our concentration. A single Web page may contain a few chunks of text, a video or audio stream, a set of navigational tools, various advertisements, and several small software applications, or widgets, running in their own windows.
So, what’s so bad about getting all this information, all this choice, all this convenience, all this control? “When we go online,” Carr writes, “we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning.” And, “the Net‘s interactivity gives us powerful new tools for finding information, expressing ourselves, and conversing with others. It also turns us into lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment.”
At one point, Carr provides the most useful succinct summary of his thesis:
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—to process information very quickly and very efficiently but without sustained attention.
Is Carr right? He’s pretty obviously correct in his representation of the neuroscience. We have core brain structures, but a principal feature of these structures is a useful plasticity that can turn into a Greek gift: our tools can shape us as much as we shape them. How many times has each of us sat, glowering, before a computer screen, struggling to format a short document which, had we simply turned away and started writing with pen and paper, we would have been finished with long ago?
Yet, as noted above, every innovation, no matter how useful it turns out to be, prompts warnings about the dangers of a new demon technology. It seems rather early in the life of the internet to lament the passing of one kind of intellectual culture, before we know all of the effects of the new one.
Would we really rather be gathering in the agora to recite our latest lyrical essays to each other, with access to no more information and learning than that possesses by those who happened to be in attendance that day?
Well, now that I think about it, maybe some of us would.