Sunday, January 16, 2011

Of Brains and Books

 “The reading of a sequence of printed pages is valuable not just for the knowledge readers acquired from the author’s words but for the way those words set off intellectual vibrations within their own minds.  In the quiet spaces opened up by the prolonged, undistracted reading of a book, people made their own associations, drew their own inferences and analogies, fostered their own ideas.  They thought deeply as they read deeply.”
Nicholas Carr
“How is the way we read changing? How is the way we write changing? How is the way we think changing?”  These are the questions Nicholas Carr says we need to be asking of ourselves as well as our children.  His book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, is a fascinating exploration of these questions from his own experience, from neuroscientific evidence, from cultural observation, from daily developments in modern technology, and from a historical perspective. 

For me, this book was about two things—the value of reading books and the caution we should have as we enjoy all our technology tools, for they are making permanent changes to our brain.  I hasten to note, I am not a dinosaur, protesting change and our inexorable march into a digital future.  I am, in fact, online almost all day at work and much of the evening, too. Research that used to take days or weeks springs to my screen in seconds. I get impatient when a website is slow in opening, and I’ve come to rely on Google in a symbiotic but perhaps unhealthy fashion. I do social networking and am often an early adapter of technology.  I got my 80 year old mother onto email.

I am a writer, and I am a netizen. But I am first, last, and always a book reader. 

Reading The Shallows, a glimmer of recognition: could it be that the disintegration of my memory and powers of concentration are not just about constant daily stress and/or age, but also, or even largely, my heavy Internet usage?  To paraphrase Nicholas Carr, I miss my old brain!

Carr makes a passionate case for the book as encompassing a set of skills and pleasures we should not want to lose.  “Reading a book was a meditative act, but it didn’t involve a clearing of the mind.  Readers disengaged their attention from the outward flow of passing stimuli in order to engage it more deeply with an inward flow of words, ideas, and emotions. “

While Carr is a heavy user of technology and as addicted to its connectivity as most, he makes a strong case that that very quality as well as speed, and massive amount of information and split-second decision-making  have negative as well as positive impacts.  As he comments, “Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving sea of particles. Once I was a scuba driver in the sea of words.  Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

Further, “[t]he Net is, by design, an interruption system, a machine geared for dividing attention,” with its multiple windows open and applications running simultaneously, and the constant influx of messages through email and social media.  And we are by no means unwilling participants in this system.  “We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the division of our attention and the fragmentation of our thoughts, in return for the wealth of compelling or at least diverting information we receive,” says Carr.  

Links are both possibilities and problems. Even if we don’t click on them, they still cause us to stop at each one for a fraction of an instant to evaluate whether we should click or not, whether it might be interesting or valuable.  It takes some of our precious cognitive power to evaluate links and navigate paths through them.  This increased “cognitive load” does not serve us well and we don’t digest and retain as much.  As the author says, the medium obscures meaning.  Endless symbols and scraps of information or commentary or videos or photos compete for our attention. “Try reading a book while doing a crossword puzzle; that’s the intellectual environment of the Internet.”

Because this time doing things like sending bite-sized information and scanning web pages crowds out time writing sentences and paragraphs and reading deeply,  there are neurological consequences: “[T]he circuits that support those old intellectual functions weaken and begin to break apart…We gain new skills and perspectives but lose old ones.”  Multitasking, as I have often written, is not necessarily our friend. 

Referring again to the shallowness that accompanies our days and nights on the Net, Carr says, “The strip mining of ‘relevant content’ replaces the slow excavation of meaning.” The author cites National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke neurological science unit head, Jordan Grafman, as saying that our increased ability for online multitasking hampers our ability to be creative and think deeply.  University of Michigan neuroscientist David Meyer is quoted on how with multitasking we are “learning to be skillful at a superficial level.”  Carr quotes neuroscientist Michael Merzenich, who says brutally but accurately, multitasking is “training our brains to pay attention to the crap.”  And we hear from Maryanne Wolf, a Tufts University developmental psychologist, that on the web we are “mere decoders of information.” 

The multitasking of reading online versus reading a book is, for me, a contrast of noise vs. quiet. Clutter vs. clarity. Mindlessness vs. mindfulness. Distraction vs. attention.   Shallowness vs. depth.  Speed vs. savoring. Mechanized digital storage vs. meaning and memory. 

The author has a point of view, to be certain, which he backs up with substantial scientific evidence, but this is not to say he doesn’t have fun with his tale.  He also periodically provides perspective to the concerns he raises.  I nod my head in agreement reading Carr’s account of how people complained of feeling overwhelmed at the huge new volume of information flooding their minds—and then am amused to realize that the citizenry he refers to was in the 17th century, reacting to the influx of books and periodicals then. 

Carr quotes Marshall McLuhan from Understanding Media,” A new medium is never an addition to an old one, nor does it leave the old one in peace.  It never ceases to oppress the older media until it finds new shapes and positions for them.”  I struggle with this each and every day both in my day job in publishing and as a freelance writer, and as a reader and a consumer of information.  I ride the wave of technology, but I sometimes do so angrily.  You can force me to change how I write and what media I write for. You can’t force me to change my preferred method of reading.  To Carr’s point that “The mind of the experienced book reader is a calm mind, not a buzzing one,” I reply that I am weary of all the buzzing that has replaced my once calm mind.

 “While experimental evidence is sparse,” the author says it’s logical that our online activities would speed certain kinds of problem solving, and have us process competing informational cues.  The paradoxes are endless, like how we delegate memory to our technology but in doing so lose it in our brains. (How many of your friends’ phone numbers don’t you know because they’re programmed into your mobile?)

I read in horror as Carr quotes Steven Johnson on how writers and publishers will be factoring Google rankings into their craft.  And that with digitalization of books, so that they will no longer be finished products but amorphous works that can be revised indefinitely, Carr says,  “It seems likely that removing the sense of closure from book writing will, in time, alter writers’ attitude to their work.  The pressure to achieve perfection will diminish, along with the artistic rigor that the pressure imposed.” He compares this to the “narrowing of expressiveness and loss of eloquence” that came when email entered the history of correspondence.

But my eyes are straining more and more each day to read the computer screen, despite tricks to increase font size and the huge monitors I’ve got for both my desktop and laptop.  And I’ve been worried recently that my absorption of deep books that used to nourish me and give me a framework for meaningful exploration of life—particularly spiritual reading--seems to have diminished. I grow impatient as I try to concentrate, unable to slow myself down to the speed of reading for riches.

I read with horror about e-books with links in them and how soon social networking features will be incorporated into digital readers, “turning reading into something like a team sport,” with live chats embedded and people cutting and pasting bits of books into new vehicles altogether.

I hate the “crawls” along the bottom of my TV screen and annoying pop-up messages; I sure as hell don’t want them on the pages of my book.  I find many magazines’ attempts to mimic websites lame and become angered by the clutter on the page, not so much that information or entertainment is coming in bite-size pieces, but that dozens of different style fonts and colors and tiny print making those pieces impossible to read.  If books start to do this I will be shattered.  They are becoming my only escape from all the noise of modern life.

I think the day the book is gone is the day I will depart this earth, and should I be reborn, please let it be  in a time where the book is revered, or should there be a heaven, please let it have a public library.  


  1. Your observations are spot on. Thanks for bringing them to light. I too am deeply concerned about the long-range effects of over-digitalization. Planning to read Nicholas Carr's book at the first opportunity.

  2. SOme people think Sesame Street -- with its short bursts of episodes -- has contributed to this and the inability of younger people to concentrate on anything for very long. This concerns me, too, along with the buzzing....

  3. As usual Karen, you put so eloquently into words the very thoughts I am pondering. I find myself unable to concentrate on any one thing lately. I had blamed this on my current cold ridden head. Seeing more and more written on "focusing", had not considered this angle as the source. I will be more "mindful" today and am off to read a book...that I hold in my hand...that I can caress the pages of...that I can be with, wherever I am...Wonderful post. I'm copying and pasting it to my most distracted friends!