07 January 2011

The Shallows

How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember.



The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

Here at Health24, naturally, we love the internet. We love the fact that it is such a rich source of information, and we particularly love its interactivity.

Nicholas Carr loves it, perhaps, too much: in order to write The Shallows, he had to take himself offline, and lock himself up where even cellphone reception was patchy.

This book is an exploration of what the internet is doing to our attention spans, clearly. But it also looks at how it is impacting on our expectations, our society, and particularly our brains.

Carr’s technique is a mainly historical one: he looks at each of the main media and conceptual revolutions, and the impact each has had on society. The map, for instance, absolutely revolutionised humans’ understanding of the world, and with it a whole set of intellectual ethics and assumptions. The clock did the same for our understanding of time. And the internet, Carr argues, is a revolution akin to the development of the printing press, and the impact on society might be as great.

People tend to fall into two camps around the Net. Critics argue that it is dumbing culture down; proponents argue that it is democratising culture. Both are probably true, but Carr’s approach – to look at the science of how we learn, and how our brains work, and how they might be changing – is  fascinating.

We know that how the brain works is a function much more of nurture than of nature. Studies have shown, for instance, that the brains of literate people differ from those of the illiterate in terms not only of how we understand language, but also how we process visual signals, how we reason, and how we form memories. Even within literacy there are differences: “…People whose written language uses logographic symbols, like the Chinese, develop a mental circuitry for reading that is considerably different from the circuitry found in people whose written language employs a phonetic alphabet,” writes Carr. Anyone who has ever done business in China can testify to that: the odd misunderstandings that arise are remarkable.

Something else we now know about the human brain is that it is plastic, and continually reprogrammes itself. “Our neurons are always breaking old connections and forming new ones, and brand-new nerve cells are always being created,” he writes, quoting research from James Olds, professor of neuroscience at George Mason University. What drives this reprogramming – and the implied inherent possibility of intellectual decay or growth – is at the heart of The Shallows.

Carr’s main message is that the changes in our brains happen automatically, outside of our consciousness, which means our only control lies in identifying what causes those changes, and acting on that knowledge. “ ‘Learning how to think’ really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think,” he quotes novelist David Foster Wallace as saying. “It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.”

Amen to that.

(Review by Heather Parker, Health24, December 2010)

Buy the book here.


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