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).


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)


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)


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.


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)


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?


The Creation and Evolution Debate – a path to sanity?


We cannot ignore the debate about how to relate the Bible’s account of human origins with the current consensus of mainstream science. However we rightly want to avoid the acrimony that too often marks the discussion, not least between evangelical Christians.

I met over a couple of days with a group of ministers to think some more on this issue. We based our discussion around Denis Alexander’s Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? and the response Should Christians Embrace Evolution? edited by Norman C Nevin. The authors on both sides are evangelical Christians, but they differ on the extent to which Christians can embrace the findings of evolutionary science.

Denis Alexander does not think that that evolutionary science and the Bible are at odds. He outlines 5 possible models which I found to be a helpful sketch map of the ground (see Chapter 9, and evaluation in the chapters that follow).

Model A. There is no connection between the Bible and science; Genesis is a myth (234) and the Fall is the story of everyman (254)

Model B There was a gradual growing spiritual awareness from first hominids 200,000 years ago in Africa which eventually became human in God’s image. Gen 1-3 is a mythical retelling

Model C God chose a pair of neolithic farmers some 6,000-8,000 years ago (241) to endue them with his Image, (Stott’s Homo Divinus). Adam is representative of all humanity which somehow came to share as God’s image bearers. Adam represents humanity in a sort of federal way as far as image bearing and as far as the Fall are concerned.

Model D Old earth with periodic miraculous creative interventions. Adam and Eve were created ‘out of dust’ and are discontinuous with the rest of creation.

Model E Young earth creation about 10,000 years ago with literal six days of creative activity.

We did not resolve the discussion into a single solution. Instead I note these reflections on the issue itself, and propose some ideas for Redeeming the debate in Church.

Reflections on the Issue Creation vs Evolution

  1. If we are debating among evangelical Christians, we can agree on some non-negotiables straight away. Based on the gospel presented in the New Testament (NT) and the passages in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 about Adam-Christ, we must insist on an historical fall, and a representative Adam. This rules out Models A and B above.
  2. There are other issues that are non-negotiable on one side but not on the other that we need to examine in the light of the scriptures. For instance the meaning and significance of death, the place of miracles in creation, what it means that God pronounced the creation ‘good’ (can it be good and yet involve death or suffering?). What we decide on these issues is a function of our whole systematic theology, even in they seem to us so obvious as not to need justifying.
  3. No apparent solution is entirely free of problems. However we relate science and the Bible, it will be messy somewhere.  Models A and B are unacceptably messy on the Bible, the Fall and Sin. Models D and E are messy because of their rejection of some or all of evolutionary science. (Messy in the sense that more questions are raised by the solution). And Model C has a number of loose ends. This calls for humility on all sides.
  4. We need to distinguish between a weakness and a fatal flaw. The absence of an historical fall is (in my view) a fatal flaw. But a question about how the image of God is borne and shared under Model C may be a weakness.
  5. We also need to distinguish between strong assertions and tentative proposals. For instance I found that Wayne Grudem’s list of 8 positions held by theistic evolutionists (in his foreword to the Nevin volume of essays) obliterates this distinction (as well as inaccurately representing Alexander’s position in Do we have to choose).
  6. The Bible challenges the place that reason has in our thinking and in our culture. We need to be ready to examine our cultural assumptions under Scripture. But this does not mean we must reject all science!

Redeeming the debate within churches

This part of the debate is conducted among Christians, and often within churches. Here are some thoughts on how to conduct ourselves in person and in print (and online).

  1. We need to listen to each other. That is, we really need to listen to what the other person is saying, rather than on what I hear them say. I am really surprised at how many people whose academic training (e.g. a degree) should equip them to understand another’s point of view don’t do so in this debate,
  2. We need to know whether we disagree with what someone is saying, or whether we disagree with what we think follows from that. For instance, you may think that a position inevitably leads to Gnosticism or Atheism, but you must not call this an Gnostic or an Atheist unless that is what they are saying. But you can say that you think their position leads to G/A and invite a response.
  3. While the debate touches on some primary issues (sin, salvation), it does not turn on them. This is not a primary level debate, although the issues are not secondary
  4. Because no solution is error-free, we need space to struggle towards a better answer.
  5. We must watch our language and tone. Whether the opponent is arguing a Christian position or a non-Christian one, there is no excuse for some of the language and polemics used by some Christians.
  6. Everyone needs a dose of humility. I might be wrong; and they might be right about some things. And we might both be wrong. We long for the time when we will see everything clearly.