“The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains” by Nicholas Carr – Book Summary
The Shallows by Nicholas Carr tries to answer the question, “What can science tell us about the actual effects that Internet use is having on the way our minds work?”
Carr came upon this question as he found his ability to concentrate had gotten worse and worse since the advent of the internet. “The very way my brain worked seemed to be changing,” he writes. “It was then that I began worrying about my inability to pay attention to one thing for more than a couple of minutes. At first, I’d figured that the problem was a symptom of middle-age mind rot.”
“But my brain, I realized, wasn’t just drifting. It was hungry. It was demanding to be fed the way the Net fed it – and the more it was fed, the hungrier it became. Even when I was away from my computer, I yearned to check e-mail, click links, do some Googling. I wanted to be connected.”
Feel the same way? Read on.
Who is The Shallows for?
- Anyone who wants to be more productive
- Anyone interested in what the internet does to our brains
- Anyone who wants to reduce the amount of time they waste
1. Your Brain is Plastic
“The adult brain, it turns out, is not just plastic but, as James Olds, a professor of neuroscience who drives the Krasnow Institue for Advanced Study at George Mason University, puts it, ‘very plastic.’ Or, as Merzenich himself says, ‘massively plastic.’ The plasticity diminishes as we get older – brains do get stuck in their ways – but it never goes away.”
Carr is talking about neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change itself. Wikipedia defines it as “the ability of the brain to change throughout an individual's life, e.g., brain activity associated with a given function can be transferred to a different location, the proportion of grey matter can change, and synapses may strengthen or weaken over time.”
Every experience you have, whether physical or mental, changes your brain. That’s why some scientists talk about experience-dependent neuroplasticity. Your brain changes itself depending on the experiences you have.
The general guiding principle is this: Whatever experience you have, the brain changes itself in order to get better at that specific experience. When you play football, the brain changes itself to play football better. When you read a book, the brain changes itself to read books better. When you’re on the internet, the brain changes various skills used to browse the internet better.
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s equivalent of building muscles. When you train your biceps, they grow. When you train your legs, they grow. Similarly, when you train your attention, it will grow. When you train your memory, it will grow.
2. Survival of the Busiest
“Experiments show that just as the brain can build new or stronger circuits through physical or mental practice, those circuits can weaken or dissolve with neglect. ‘If we stop exercising our mental skills,’ writes Doidge, ‘we do not just forget them: the brain map space for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead.’ Jeffrey Schwartz, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA’s medical school, terms this process ‘survival of the busiest.’ The mental skills we sacrifice may be as valuable, or even more valuable, than the ones we gain.”
This is a core feature of neuroplasticity. If you stop using a skill, the relevant neural circuits and connections will literally weaken, just as a bicep weakens as a result of lacking use.
It’s survival of the busiest. The mental skills you use most often – the busiest – will survive, strengthen, and prosper; the mental skills you stop using will weaken. If you only train your biceps and never your legs, your biceps will strengthen and the legs weaken.
As we spend more and more time on the internet, the skills we use on the internet will continue to strengthen, while the skills involved in, say, book reading will weaken as we spend less and less time on it.
3. Intellectual Ethics
“…the tools we use to write, read, and otherwise manipulate information work on our minds even as our minds work with them…”
“As the stories of the map and the mechanical clock illustrate, intellectual technologies, when they come into popular use, often promote new ways of thinking or extend to the general population established ways of thinking that had been limited to a small, elite group. Every intellectual technology, to put it another way, embodies an intellectual ethic, a set of assumptions about how the human mind works or should work.”
The tools we use to write, read, or otherwise manipulate information – our intellectual tools – work on our minds: They change how we process information, how we interpret, how we focus, how we think.
Carr calls this the intellectual ethic of a technology. The book’s intellectual ethic evolves around solitary, single-minded concentration. The map’s intellectual ethic around conceptual thinking. The clock’s intellectual ethic around scientific thinking. The internet’s intellectual ethic?
4. Technology and the Brain
“The recent discoveries about neuroplasticity make the essence of the intellect more visible, its steps and boundaries easier to mark. They tell us that the tools man has used to support or extend his nervous system – all those technologies that through history have influenced how we find, store, and interpret information, how we direct our attention and engage our senses, how we remember and how we forget – have shaped the physical structure and workings of the human mind. Their use has strengthened some neural circuits and weakened others, reinforced certain mental traits while leaving other to fade away.”
This is a kind of summary of the previous three points. The key takeaway is: The technology we use – maps, clocks, books, the internet – shape our minds through the process of neuroplasticity. Certain skills are strengthened; others weakened.
The question Carr tries to answer in the remainder of the book is: How does the internet shape our minds? Which skills are strengthened? Which are weakened? And what are the consequences of these changes?
5. The Single Most Powerful Mind-Altering Technology
“Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, educators, and Web designers point to the same conclusion: when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. It’s possible to think deeply while surfing the Net, just as it’s possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but that’s not the type of thinking the technology encourages and rewards.
One thing is very clear: if, knowing what we know today about the brain’s plasticity, you were to set out to invent a medium that would rewire our mental circuits as quickly and thoroughly as possible, you would probably end up designing something that looks and works a lot like the Internet. It’s not just that we tend to use the Net regularly, even obsessively. It’s that the Net delivers precisely the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli—repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive—that have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions. With the exception of alphabets and number systems, the Net may well be the single most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use. At the very least, it’s the most powerful that has come along since the book.”
The technology we use shape our minds through the process of neuroplasticity. Used skills get strengthened; unused skills weakened.
Consider now some of the skills we use as we surf the Web: Cursory reading, hurried, distracted, shallow thinking, superficial learning, impulsive decision-making, multitasking. These are the skills the Internet will strengthen.
Now consider some of the skills that go unused as we surf the Web: deep reading and learning, calm, clear, concentrated, and deliberate thinking, deliberate decision-making, single-tasking. These are the skills that will weaken.
Whether these changes are good or bad is for everyone to decide themselves. What is clear is that the internet is changing our brains. There are no two ways about it. As Carr states: The Net may well be the single most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use.
6. The Net’s Addictiveness
“The Net also provides a high-speed system for delivering responses and rewards – ‘positive reinforcements,’ in psychological terms – which encourage the repetition of both physical and mental actions. When we click a link, we get something new to look at and evaluate. When we Google a keyword, we receive, in the blink of an eye, a list of interesting information to appraise. When we send a text or an instant message or an e-mail, we often get a reply in a matter of seconds or minutes. When we use Facebook, we attract new friends or form closer bonds with old ones. When we send a tweet through Twitter, we gain new followers. When we write a blog post, we get comments from readers or links from other bloggers.”
Behavior that gets rewarded (reinforced) gets repeated.
Animal behavior is almost exclusively explained by that simple phrase. Reward a dog for doing some trick, and the dog will gladly repeat the trick over and over. While humans are a bit more sophisticated than animals, our behavior is still strongly influenced by rewards.
When you check your email, hop on Facebook, make a Google search, send out a tweet, or go through your Instagram feed, you do it in the hope of a reward – an email from an old friend, a “like” on your post, a fascinating bit of information, replies to your tweet, or sexy images from your co-workers.
The internet provides rewards left and right. It’s to the brain what a candy shop is to a kid. If you’ve ever wondered how the internet is able to demand so much of your attention, or why the internet is so addictive, this is your answer. It’s a non-stop provider of rewards for a brain largely driven by seeking of… rewards.
7. The Net Seizes Our Attention Only to Scatter it
“Our use of the Internet involves many paradoxes, but the one that promises to have the greatest long-term influence over how we think is this one: the Net seizes our attention only to scatter it. We focus intensively on the medium itself, on the flickering screen, but we’re distracted by the medium’s rapid-fire delivery of competing messages and stimuli. Whenever and wherever we log on, the Net presents us with an incredibly seductive blur. Human beings ‘want more information, more impressions, and more complexity,’ writes Torkel Klingberg, the Swedish neuroscientist. We tend to ‘seek out situations that demand concurrent performance or situations in which [we] are overwhelmed with information.’ If the slow progression of words across printed pages dampened our cravings to be inundated by mental stimulation, the Net indulges it. It returns us to our native state of bottom-up distractedness, while presenting us with far more distractions than our ancestors ever had to deal with.”
The Net, with its overabundance of rewards, seizes our attention. And once it has our attention, it scatters it. We jump from one thing to the next in a state of constant distractedness. On the Web, we never concentrate for any long stretch of time. We switch from email to Facebook to Instagram to BBC to YouTube to Google and back to Facebook in a sheer never-ending succession.
Even if we spend long periods of time on the same website, our attention is still being scattered. On Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter we scroll through the feeds, locking our attention on any specific post for no longer than a few seconds. On YouTube, we only ever watch videos in a semi-distracted state because we’re already looking for the next, more exciting video. When reading an article or Googling something, we jump from one site to the next, reading a tidbit here and there, clicking hyperlinks, moving to the next tidbit, and so on.
The result: We are training our minds to be distracted and impulsive.
8. Constant Interruptions & Switching Costs
“Studies of office workers who use computers reveal that they constantly stop what they’re doing to read and respond to incoming e-mails. It’s not unusual for them to glance at their in-box thirty or forty times an hour (though when asked how frequently they look, they’ll often give a much lower figure.) Since each glance represents a small interruption of thought, a momentary redeployment of mental resources, the cognitive cost can be high. Psychological research long ago proved what most of us know from experience: frequent interruptions scatter our thoughts, weaken our memory, and make us tense and anxious. The more complex the train of thought we’re involved in, the greater the impairment the distractions cause.”
“Navigating the Web requires a particularly intensive form of mental multitasking. In addition to flooding our working memory with information, the juggling imposes what brain scientists call ‘switching costs’ on our cognition. Every time we shift our attention, our brain has to reorient itself, further taxing our mental resources. As Maggie Jackson explains in Distracted, her book on multitasking, ‘the brain takes time to change goals, remember the rules needed for the new task, and block out cognitive interference from the previous, still-vivid activity.’ Many studies have shown that switching between just two tasks can add substantially to our cognitive load, impeding our thinking and increasing the likelihood that we’ll overlook or misinterpret information.”
Because the internet is so attractive and offers so many rewards, we are constantly drawn to it. In an office setting, this means we are constantly self-interrupting – checking e-mail, Facebook, news websites, and so on.
This jumping from one object of attention to another comes with switching costs. Our brain has to change goals, remember the rules needed for the new task, block out interference from the previous activity, and so on. This leads not only to a loss in time but also tension, anxiety, and a weakened memory.
9. How Multitasking Changes Your Brain
“Given our brain’s plasticity, we know that our online habits continue to reverberate in the workings of our synapses when we’re not online. We can assume that the neural circuits devoted to scanning, skimming, and multitasking are expanding and strengthening, while those used for reading and thinking deeply, with sustained concentration, are weakening or eroding.
In 2009, researchers from Stanford University found signs that this shift may already be well under way. They gave a battery of cognitive tests to a group of heavy media multitaskers as well as a group of relatively light multitaskers. They found that the heavy multitaskers were much more easily distracted by ‘irrelevant environmental stimuli,’ had significantly less control over the contents of their working memory, and were in general much less able to maintain their concentration on a particular task.
Whereas the infrequent multitaskers exhibited relatively strong ‘top-down attentional control,’ the habitual multitaskers showed ‘a greater tendency for bottom-up attentional control,’ suggesting that ‘they may be sacrificing performance on the primary task to let in other sources of information.’ Intensive multitaskers are ‘suckers for irrelevancy,’ commented Clifford Nass, the Stanford professor who led the research. ‘Everything distracts them.’
Michael Merzenich offers an even bleaker assessment. As we multitask online, he says, we are ‘training our brains to pay attention to the crap.’ The consequences for our intellectual lives may prove ‘deadly.’”
The constant task switch facilitated by the internet comes with costs. Not only do we lose productivity, we might literally rewire our brains to be more distracted, impulsive, and less able to concentrate.
10. A Conclusion
“…thanks once again to the plasticity of our neuronal pathways, the more we use the Web, the more we train our brain to be distracted – to process information very quickly and very efficiently but without sustained attention. That helps explain why many of us find it hard to concentrate even when we’re away from our computers. Our brains become adept at forgetting, inept at remembering.”
Carr thus finds the answer to his original worries in the internet itself. The reason he can’t concentrate anymore? The reason he’s so easily distracted? The reason his brain demands constant rewards? It’s the internet.
If you enjoyed this, here are some similar books you might enjoy.
- Deep Work by Cal Newport. Hands down the best productivity book for knowledge workers in the 21st century.
- Your Brain at Work by David Rock. This is one of my all-time favorite productivity books. It’s packed with advice based on the latest brain science. Be warned, though: it’s dense.
- Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg. This is another good productivity book. I especially enjoyed the chapters on motivation and goal-setting.
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