What the Internet Is (or Isn’t) Doing to Our Brains

by Noah Hutton
Contributing Editor

“I was losing my ability to tune out distractions and focus on one thing,” began Nicolas Carr. “I contend that the Web moves us back to a primitive way of thinking.”

Carr is the author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (Norton, $26.95). As per the title, he gave a talk last week at the New York Academy of Sciences about his theories on the Internet and what it is doing to us.

But Carr would tell you that these are not just theories– that there is hard, scientific evidence to back up his claims about attention, deep concentration, and multitasking. And that is where the debate has raged since his book was published earlier this year: is there enough empirical evidence yet to conclude that the Net is having harmful effects on our cognitive capacities to concentrate and focus our attention? Or is Carr’s thesis more of a tenuous coalition of thin scientific evidence and overstretched cultural anecdotes about our online culture, all steeped in a fear of the wires and screens of the present, with a nostalgia for the pre-Web past?

Clearly, I tend to side with the latter camp; for those interested in the finer points of what Carr is basing his claims on (for example, there is much debate about Carr’s inclusion of video game studies to make point about Internet usage) I steer you to Jonah Lehrer’s eloquent NYT review of Carr’s book, as well as the comments section of Lehrer’s blog post about his review, where Carr and Lehrer had a Web-based back-and-forth in June about it all. It is important to note that even Carr has admitted the relative lack of evidence: in a September interview for New Scientist, he is quoted as follows:

Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of physiological evidence to show how the net affects the brain – but there’s some, and it is compelling. One study from the University of California, Los Angeles, for instance, shows fairly extensive changes in patterns of brain activation from moderate use of search engines.

Carr is arguing that Internet usage leads to scattered thinking, as one checks email, Facebook, Twitter, then gets back to reading an article or working on whatever they’re actually supposed to be working on. Sure, that’s one way people use the Internet, and I have certainly felt myself procrastinating from time to time, but I also contend I can do more over time because of these tools. People also try to drink and do drugs and then work—but people write different kinds books about that, and they’re found in the self-help section.

Personally, after sifting through the blog posts with their comments, and reading The Shallows, I leave the store not buying the product Carr is selling—for a very basic reason. It’s the reason with which Carr began his discussion of the Internet at the NYAS talk last week.

“Whether they realize it or not, in the early stages, users don’t realize the hidden force of technology,” Carr told the audience. He bemoaned the “compulsive fervor” of Internet consumption, and the inherent “ethic” he believes is embedded in Web-based technology, which, according to Carr’s fears about his own brain which led to all this, is rather unethical. And by the end, he was telling the audience that he believes the Internet is leading us towards a more primitive way of thinking– a step backwards on Carr’s intellectual ladder.

The book we need is not one about what this evil Internet is doing to us, as there is actually no inherent ethic in any tool. It’s all inside of us– this is rule number one from neuroscience. What we perhaps could use is one about how to take ownership of it and use it for what it’s worth. From the comments at Lehrer’s blog:

Following on the warnings of Socrates, does anyone here dispute that books have been a cognitive boon for humankind? With the advent of smartphones, I and millions of others have virtually instantaneous access to vast stores of knowledge. Yesterday over dinner naked mole rats came up in conversation, and I pulled out my Droid, used voice search, and had gobs of new information to add to the discussion. On a recent trip to San Francisco, I used walking navigation to find my way around the city. Personally it seems a huge benefit to be able to spend fewer cognitive resources on storing large amounts of obscure facts or spatial maps. Instead, I have to learn the comparatively cognitive load of learning how to effectively access the information and use it.

The Internet probably does have adverse effects if we use it with the “compulsive fervor” that Carr describes. But Derek James, author of the above comment, clearly doesn’t feel the same scattering ethic Carr does inherent in the tools he’s using.  He seems to be using his tools quite well.

From the first stone tools to maps, clocks, books, and now the Internet, tools are about how we use them and what we use them for. If you’re really worried about distractions on the Internet and really feel a loss of control, then close the laptop and take a walk. It ends up working like any cycle of addiction would—it’s nothing inherent in the thing, it’s about how we use and then abuse our things.

Carr’s fear of the Internet, as if it were a wild beast we have lost control of, will always seem nostalgic, for the active use of tools leads to the invention of new tools, as we figure out what is and isn’t working so that the next step can be taken. These steps are not always in a “forward” or “upward” direction (however one would judge those directions), but at least we’re taking a step. It’s the difference between stepping up to the plate and taking some swings or just standing there and complaining about your bat.

About the author

Noah Hutton

Noah Hutton is a film director and curator, and was named a 2015 Salzburg Global Fellow in Neuroscience and Art.

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6 Comments

  • yes ever since i got the internet at home, i have found i’ve lost focus. I cant seem to concentrate on my goal. I’m following things on the net that are not productive

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