Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brains

October 25, 2010 | 1 book mentioned 15 8 min read


I’ve been on the Internet since I was fourteen years old. I’ve always loved it here. But a few months back, I found myself a bit troubled by what I perceived to be a difference in the way my mind was working. I would be at my desk writing and then I’d be on Twitter or Gmail or CNN, with no clear recollection of having decided to drop one task and switch to another. It was as if my brain, craving stimulation beyond the meticulous working out of plot issues, had jumped to a new task of its own accord. I wasn’t always this distractible.

The problem reminded me of muscle memory. I used to be a dancer, and my training was intense. After a certain amount of physical training, either in dance or in athletics, certain actions become almost unconscious. After all these years away from dance I can still assume a perfect arabesque line. I have a visceral memory of exactly what a triple pirouette feels like, the precise coordination and timing required, although I doubt very much that I could execute one anymore.

I began to realize that after all this time on the Internet, I’d trained my brain to expect a new stimulation every few minutes. After a short period of concentration on a given task, my brain would do what I’d trained it to do: it would turn its attention to something else. Concentrating on a single task for an extended period of time—as is required when one’s reading a book, for instance, or writing one—had become unsettlingly difficult.

coverI only occasionally read non-fiction, but I was struck by Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing To Our Brains from the moment I saw the title on a bookstore shelf. Carr describes the same phenomenon in his own life. “Over the last few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense,” he writes,

that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I feel it most strongly when I’m reading. I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or lengthy article… Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel like I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

The Internet, he writes, is a system that might as well have been designed to foster distractedness. When you’re reading a book it’s easy to sink into the text—what Carr calls deep reading—for long periods. There’s nothing in that medium but the text itself. Reading on the Internet is a different matter. The Web is designed to allow you to move rapidly between interlinked pages, but even if you don’t click a link every few minutes, this is an arena of constant distractions. Even if one of those infernal pop-ups doesn’t float across your screen and demand your attention, even if there aren’t two or three animated banner ads flashing their messages above and to the side of the text you’re reading, there are usually links embedded in the text itself, and the second or two it takes to evaluate whether or not the link’s worth following forces a break in your concentration. In the meantime, you’re waiting for two or three important emails, and it’s been a few minutes since you last checked Twitter or Facebook, and what’s the weather supposed to be like later? Your brain is constantly switching tasks.

Neuroplasticity is the process by which the brain changes in response to experience. The human brain remains plastic, which is to say malleable, throughout our adult lives, meaning that new connections between neural cells are continually being forged. The changes wrought by neuroplasticity aren’t trivial; a famous 1990s study of London cab drivers (cited in this book) found that cabbies who’d been navigating London’s complex street system for two years or longer displayed a measurable increase in the size of the posterior hippocampus, a section of the brain associated with spatial memory, and that the longer a cabbie had been driving, the larger this part of the brain tended to be.

The advantages to this structural flexibility are obvious. Your brain is somewhat less plastic now than it was when you were a child, but it’s never too late to learn another language, or the street grid of a new city, or how to program an Excel spreadsheet. As you gain expertise in your new skills, new connections are forged and existing connections strengthened.

However, there’s a downside. “Although neuroplasticity provides an escape from genetic determinism,” Carr writes,

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 physical or mental activity, they begin to transform that activity into a habit.

The paradox of neuroplasticity, observes [the research psychiatrist Charles] Doidge, is that for all the mental flexibility it grants us, it can end up locking us into ‘rigid behaviors’. The chemically triggered synapses that link our neurons program us, in effect, to want to keep exercising the circuits they’ve formed.

In other words, if you’ve spent so much time online that you’re accustomed to focusing on something new every few minutes, you might have a hard time reading deeply for long periods of time without checking your BlackBerry, or writing uninterrupted at your desk without wandering into Twitter. As you continue to switch rapidly between tasks, the neural connections that have developed in response to this behavior continue to strengthen, while unused circuits weaken and fall away. Your brain is continually fine-tuning itself. “This doesn’t mean that we can’t,” Carr writes,

with concerted effort, once again redirect our neural signals and rebuild the skills we’ve lost. What it does mean is that the vital paths in our brains become … the paths of least resistance. They are the paths that most of us will take most of the time, and the farther we proceed down them, the more difficult it is to turn back.

The Internet has trained us. Which is to say, of course, that we’ve trained ourselves, since the Web is the most human of endeavors; we code the Web and we design its flashing graphics, we write its content and speak to one another through its zeros and ones. We’ve created an ever-more-speedy experience, and we’ve adapted to that speed. “Sometimes our tools do what we tell them to,” Carr writes. “Other times, we adapt ourselves to our tools’ requirements.”

Both statements, of course, apply to the Internet.

Carr has a weakness, here and there, for telling us what we already know. (“The ability to exchange information online, to upload as well as download, has turned the Net into a thoroughfare for business and commerce.”) There’s an unsettling inclusion, in the midst of far sounder studies, of what looks to me like junk science: a 2008 Adweek magazine study that followed four (4) typical Americans for a day and noted that what they all had in common was that none of them opened a book. Four isn’t a persuasive sample size.

He makes a couple of assumptions that I disagree with, most notably in a discussion of the ways in which a gradual shift from printed books to ebooks might change the way authors view their work, given the impermanence of electronic text:

Even after an ebook is downloaded into a networked device, it can be easily and automatically updated… It seems likely that removing the sense of closure from book writing will, in time, alter writers’ attitudes toward their work. The pressure to achieve perfection will diminish, along with the artistic rigor that the pressure imposed.

To which I can only reply: try writing for the Internet. (He does in fact write for the Internet; he must just experience it differently than I do.) Any mistake I make in a piece published online will be immediately pointed out to me in the comments section, with varying degrees of helpfulness or malice. Yes, I can log into WordPress and fix the mistake, but the cost of imperfection is public embarrassment, and the sharp-edged business of publishing books is genteel by comparison.

But by and large, I found The Shallows to be a persuasive and interesting work. The New York Times, however, was unconvinced.

Jonah Lehrer began his career as a scientist. He was a double major in neuroscience and English, and spent some years as a technician in the laboratory of Nobel laureate Eric Kandel. He’s gone on to distinguish himself as a science writer. In his New York Times review of The Shallows, he notes that “[t]here is little doubt that the Internet is changing our brain.

Everything changes our brain. What Carr neglects to mention, however, is that the preponderance of scientific evidence suggests that the Internet and related technologies are actually good for the mind. For instance, a comprehensive 2009 review of studies published on the cognitive effects of video games found that gaming led to significant improvements in performance on various cognitive tasks, from visual perception to sustained attention. This surprising result led the scientists to propose that even simple computer games like Tetris can lead to “marked increases in the speed of information processing.”

Being able to process information quickly is useful, but it doesn’t quite negate Carr’s thesis, which is that the neurological changes brought about by Internet usage can erode our ability to focus deeply for prolonged periods and that this has implications for society at large. What the video game studies (pdf) suggest is that gameplay—which Carr views as a useful proxy for certain aspects of Web use—can “induce a general speeding of perceptual reaction times without decreases in accuracy of performance.” Or as Carr puts it, “video game playing improves performance on tasks that require rapid shifts of visual attention. Clearly, an important benefit, but hardly a proxy for deep, critical, or conceptual thinking.”

Toward the end of The Shallows, Carr discusses a study that measured concentration and attentiveness in people who, before they were subjected to the researchers’ tests, spent an hour walking in a woodland park; they performed much better than a group who spent an hour walking on a busy downtown street.

Walking on an urban street is certainly analogous to the experience of spending time on the Internet: a chaos of bright lights and fleeting interactions and fast movement, stimulating and by turns interesting and banal. In the course of an impressively gentlemanly post-New York Times review debate on Jonah Lehrer’s blog, Carr wrote that “[w]e love the city street and the web for many good reasons, but we should also be aware that that they aren’t conducive to some of the deepest—and to me most valuable—forms of thought our brains are capable of.”

I followed Lehrer and Carr’s discussion, and what I found most interesting about it—aside from the sheer civility of discourse, which made me long for a magical alternate-universe version of the Internet where everyone’s reasonable and trolls don’t exist—was that no clear victor emerged. Both have considerable evidence at their disposal to back up their points of view.

But there, in the quote above: to me most valuable. The point, it seems to me, isn’t whether the Internet is “good” or “bad” for our brains. The Internet has changed us, just as the printed book and the typewriter did. The Internet sharpens us and makes us faster thinkers, more adept at shifting between tasks, even as it erodes our ability to focus on a single topic, a single work, for long periods of time. The point is that whether you think the Internet is “good for your mind”, or exactly the opposite, depends on your values.

I wouldn’t want to give up the sheer vertiginous over-stimulation of walking down a Manhattan street, any more than I’d want to give up the Internet. I live in a metropolis for a reason. But what if your work depends on the ability to fall into a state of deep focus for long periods?

Carr is the author of two other books, and has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, and other publications. His degrees are in literature and language. Although he’s done his research, it seems to me that he’s approached this problem primarily as a writer—in other words, as someone whose profession requires the ability to close oneself in a room and remain utterly focused on the business of researching and completing a manuscript for hours at a time. For a writer, an inability to focus for long periods on the work at hand is at best an impediment, at worst a disaster.

In search of greater productivity, I downloaded an ingenious application a few months back. (Note: I am not being paid to remark on its ingeniousness.) It’s called Freedom, and it turns off the Internet for however many minutes you specify, up to eight hours. It costs ten dollars. Turning the Internet back on once you’ve launched the program requires restarting your computer, which is both such a colossal hassle (ask me how many Word documents I have open at the moment) and such an admission of weakness (what, you couldn’t go 120 minutes without checking your email?) that I’ve never done it.

At first when I turned off the Internet, I would automatically drift into Twitter or Gmail or CNN anyway. The familiar pattern: I would be working and then I would switch tasks almost without realizing what I was doing and find myself staring at a browser window or at Tweetdeck. It would take a moment to remember that I was actually offline.

I’ve been trying to retrain myself. A few months after downloading Freedom, I’ve noticed a change. I’m much more productive than I was a few months ago. I can write for longer periods now, uninterrupted. Sometimes even when I’m not running the application, when the bright lights of the Internet are available at my fingertips.

(Image: Mini Cooper New York City, from norriswong’s photostream)

is a staff writer for The Millions. Her most recent novel, Station Eleven, was a 2014 National Book Awards finalist. She is married and lives in Brooklyn.