Neurons that fire together wire together: a review of The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

Nicholas Carr believes that the internet is rotting our brains. Do we believe him, and should we be worried?

Carr is not arguing against all technology. His point is that there is something specific about the Internet that is changing the way we think, and that this is to the detriment of our humanity.  It comes from a toxic mix of writing, multi-tasking and neurons.

The internet is a type of intellectual technology, a set of tools that extends the power of the mind and includes the map, the clock and the written word. We can compare this with technologies that expand the our physical power or dexterity (the plough, the needle and the fighter jet); or that extend the senses (microscope, amplifier), or that reshape nature (birth control pill, GM seeds).

Writing

The advent of the written word changed the way we related to knowledge. We learn to remember rather than to know:

The written word is “a recipe not for memory but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom … but only its semblance@ (p. 54, quoting from Plato’s Phaedrus)

It was fascinating to learn that spaces between words seem to be a relatively recent development. I don’t agree that it means writing before the middle ages had no literary craft because scribes simply transcribed what they heard:

The scribes didn’t pay much attention to the order of the words in a sentence either … In interpreting the writing in books through the early Middle Ages, readers would not have been able to use word order as a signal of meaning. The rules hadn’t been invented yet (61).

It seems to me that classical Hebrew and Greek were sufficiently literary that word order is relevant to meaning.

Nevertheless, writing opened the door to ‘deep reading’, immersion in a text that follows from giving it concentrated attention. The new technologies threaten to slam that door shut.

When a printed book … is transferred to a device connected to the internet, it turns into something very like a Web site. Its words become wrapped in all the distractions of the networked computer (104)

Multitasking

The problem with the Net is that it provides us with so many simultaneous stimuli that we lose the ability to concentrate on one thing only.

The shift from paper to screen doesn’t just change the way we navigate a piece of writing. It also influences the degree of attention we devote to it and the depth of our immersion in it (90)

and

The Net’s cacophony of stimuli short-circuits both conscious and unconscious though, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively (119)

and again

improving our ability to multitask actually hampers our ability to think deeply and creatively (140)

As we get better at such shallow thinking, we lose the ability to think deeply. It changes the way our brains are wired.

Neurons

We read web pages in a different way to printed text. Web pages promote cursory, hurried and distracted reading. The more we use the internet, the more we learn to read in this way. We are like lab rats, says Carr:

The Net also provides a high speed system for delivering responses and rewards … it turns us into lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment (117).

I think that is a bit strong. Yet I agree that the cycle of reinforcement means that we are training our brains to read more in this way, and therefore less in the concentrated way of ‘deep reading. The biology of it is that when the brain learns to do something, the neuron pathways involved become stronger: ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’. Learning new skills rewires the brain in new ways. These new skills and their consequent neural pathways come at the expense of old skills and old pathways:

Just as neurons that fire together wire together, neurons that don’t fire together don’t wire together. As the time we spend scanning Web pages crowds out time we spend reading books, as the time we send exchanging bite-sized text messages crowds out the time we spend composing sentences and paragraphs … the circuits that support these old intellectual functions and pursuits weaken and begin to break apart. The brain recycles the disused neurons and synapses for other, more pressing work. We gain new skills and perspectives but lose old one.  (12o)

Patricia Greenfield agrees when she says ‘every medium develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others’ (quoted by Carr 141); Marshall McLuhan wrote that our tools end up ‘numbing’ whatever part of our body they ‘amplify’ (210)

Implications

Three of Carr’s implication are striking

  1.  The loss of the reading class. Carr says that the practice of deep reading will continue to face, in all likelihood becoming the province of a small and dwindling elite. We will, in other words, revert to the historical norm: ‘we are now seeing such reading return to its former social base: a self-perpetuating minority that we shall call the reading class’. The problem is that the reading class no longer coincides with the social and economic elite.
  2. If we lose the ability to think deeply, we will lose the ability to think morally: “For some kinds of thoughts, especially moral decision-making about other people’s social and psychological situations, we need to allow for adequate time and reflection’ (221). If the social and economic decision-makers are not readers, they will not make thoughtful decisions.
  3. All of this is detrimental to our humanity. ‘The price we pay to assume technology’s power is alienation … the tools of the mind amplify and in turn numb the most intimate, the most human, of our natural capacities – those for reason, perception, memory, emotion. (211).

Have you taken a break from the computer today? Do you take longer breaks, eg computer free holiday (digital detox)? And what habits are you allowing your digital-native children to grow?

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One Response to Neurons that fire together wire together: a review of The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

  1. Swing Swang says:

    “The scribes didn’t pay much attention to the order of the words in a sentence either … In interpreting the writing in books through the early Middle Ages, readers would not have been able to use word order as a signal of meaning. The rules hadn’t been invented yet (61).”

    However the scribes didn’t need to use word order to signal meaning. I’m guessing that most of the books written in Europe during the middle ages were in Latin, which being a highly inflected language does not rely on word order to convey meaning.

    Also when it comes to the lack of spaces between words this may have been a device to save on vellum/parchment (rather than due to a failure of inventing a space between words) which would have been expensive to produce. We know that early scribes tried to economise on space – the gothic font for example is particularly difficult to read, but this was as a consequence of it having been designed so as to take up very little space on the page.

    SS

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