Monday, April 23, 2012

The shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains

The shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains
By Nicholas Carr

Book review by Richard L. Weaver II

If you have read Sharon Begley’s book, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain (Ballantine Books, 2007), or read Shawn Achor’s book, The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work (Crown Business, 2010), then you are already familiar with the subject of neuroplasticity — the basis of and foundation for neurogenesis (brain growth).
Also, I wrote an essay on the subject on my blog, and if you Google “neuroplasticity,” you will be overwhelmed with available information and ways to positively iinfluence it.

What’s the point?  If you understand neuroplasticity (which Carr explains in his book), it makes all of the arguments Carr offers in this book more reasonable, substantial, and valid.  Basically, he argues (as pioneer researchers Michael Merzenich and Eric Kandel did before him) that our brains “change in response to our experiences.  The technologies we use to find, store, and share information can literally reroute our neural pathways” (front flyleaf).  (According to the research on neuroplasticity, this isn’t even a debatable issue.)

One of the essential points of the neuroplasticity research it that neural pathways are expanded by mechanisms such as "axonal sprouting" in which undamaged axons grow new nerve endings to reconnect neurons whose links were injured or severed. Undamaged axons can also sprout nerve endings and connect with other undamaged nerve cells, forming new neural pathways to accomplish a needed function that are unused are discontinued.  

The downside to neuroplasticity is also essential to his argumentj.  There is a process, called “synaptic pruning,” in which connections that are inefficient or infrequently used are allowed to fade away.  The effects of old technology — the old ways we had for receiving, storing, and using information — are discontinued and supplanted by the newer technologies.  The downside is simply the loss of that intellectual ethic.  It is precisely Marshall McLuhan’s point that Harrison shares, “ . . . an honest appraisal of any new technology, or of progress in general, requires a sensitivity to what’s lost as well as what’s gained” (p. 212).

What I loved about this book was the way Carr offered readers the history behind such changes.  That is, with the case of every new information technology (throughout civilization), there is an accompanying intellectual ethic. The way humans have adapted and changed is chronicled and supported.  If you have any interest in the history of the media, or how writing was developed, or how the technology of the book, or the legacy of the oral world took place, Carr explains it all.  His examples are well-selected, scientific explanations are well-described, and recent advances in cognitive science are carefully and meticulously provided.

I thought Harrison’s warning in his final chapter, “A Thing Like Me,” was especially apt: “As the many studies of hypertext and multimedia show, our ability to learn can be severely compromised when our brains become overloaded with diverse stimuli online.  More information can mean less knowledge. . . “ (p. 214).

In that same final chapter, Harrison stated the following (which pleased me greatly): “A series of psychological studies over the past twenty years has revealed that after spending time in a quiet rural setting, close to nature, people exhibit greater attentiveness, stronger memory, and generally improved cognition.  Their brains become both calmer and sharper” (p. 219).  Here, here!  (He adds on the next page, “It’s not only deep thinking that requires a calm, attentive mind.  It’s also empathy and compassion” (p. 220).)

There are 31 pages of notes and further readings, and most of the references used are recent.  Some, obviously, are older (like St. Augustine, Francis Bacon, William James, Lewis Mumford or Marshall McLuhan), to support observations Harrison makes regarding earlier technologies.

Carr is an excellent writer and, thus, the reading is engaging and entertaining.  Not only that, it is challenging and thought-provoking.  There is just so much information in this book to digest and consider and weigh.  If you are interested in the process of learning (throughout history), the effects of technology (across civilizations), what is taking place in our society (around the world), how our brains work, or simply want to read an excellent book, this one is a great choice.

I’ll leave readers here with one of Harrison’s parting notes, “What matters in the end is not our becoming but what we become” (p. 222).

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