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Friday, 29 July 2011

what’s the Internet doing to your brain?

I’m currently reading The Shallows by Nicholas Carr.  Andy ordered it and I promptly nicked it, although to be fair he did inform me of its presence in the house, which is possibly asking for trouble.

Because it’s hugely relevant to my research – although my book focuses on memory (and the lack of it) it encompasses ways of thinking and learning.  Although Carr’s book is focused on how the Internet and related technologies change how we think, much of it is relevant and the rest of it is just plain interesting.

“I missed my old brain,” comments Carr near the beginning of the book, when he’d started to perceive how he was thinking differently – how he was skimming rather than deep reading, how it got harder to read longer pieces and still maintain concentration.  We are used the world of snippets, of hyperlinks, of immediacy.  Carr is not saying that modern technologies are bad things – he sees the advantages and the potential of them – but he feels a disquiet about what we might be losing.  His is a plea for balance – although it’s true that he seems to see the loss as being inevitable, as we are more and more shaped by the medium of the message, not merely the message itself.

I want to re-read it again after I’ve finished, this time with a pencil in hand – after Andy has read it obviously, I’m not that nasty – and will possibly post a few quotes here and there.  Enough to say for now that this is a deeply fascinating book and worth a look if you are interested in the Internet, how we think, or how they relate to each other, which is what this book examines.


Stuart James said...

This is very pertinent to me personally. I watch over 400 websites and blogs in my RSS news feeder – I’m an RRS hoarder – and estimate in the region of 1000 articles per day. As you can imagine, I have developed some serious scanning skills.

The flip side of this is that I’m finding it increasingly difficult to read long articles. I find myself drawn to soundbites and lacking the concentration for verbose pieces, even if they are undoubtedly worthy of reading and I’d probably learn from them.

I’m constantly hunting for the crux or punch line and I think this is one of the reasons why I’m so drawn to Twitter.

The trouble is of course, if you’re prone to scan longer articles, it’s entirely possible to miss or misconstrue the premise.

I will say though that my reading pattern does coincide with my mood state. As I’m more ‘up’ than ‘down’ right now, I want quick hits of information and don’t have much in the way of patience or concentration power.

Alex G said...

Hi Lucy. Just out of curiosity - does the book say anything about what the internet is doing to the way we write?


Adulcia said...

Ouch. About to log off to go and read a real book now, while I can still remember how.

T.C. said...

Clearly I am affected. I read the first part of your post, scanned down to the comments, then went back to the rest of the post....where the comments then made sense.

Lucy Mills said...

Stuart - you're so right - I think half the time we misunderstand blog posts because we don't actually read them properly.

Alex - it does touch on it, will leave longer comment on this later as am going out shortly...

Adulcia - go for it :)

T.C. - I had to smile at your comment...

30 July 2011 08:50

Lucy Mills said...

When it comes to writing, a lot of the impact is implicit in the overall subject matter, but Carr makes reference to both Nietzsche and TS Eliot who, when beginning to type instead of write, found that they wrote differently - sentences were shorter, tighter etc. The hypothesis Carr makes is that we are shaped as much by our tools as we shape them - and this includes writing tools. Hence, if we get used to short, snappy snippets on the web, we begin to write in the same way.

He admits that it was a great struggle to write the book itself, and he had to remove himself from all the distracting elements he had come to crave - like Facebook, Twitter, RSS readers, emails and blogging. Sometimes he felt the need to have an all day 'Web binge' but eventually he began to be able to concentrate more deeply again - after removing these elements.

He also references academic writing, where researchers become more reliant on web search tools - i.e. Google, etc. These tools are designed to find the most relevant/popular/recent information which means researchers do not necessarily read so much around a topic - partially related articles which may have been routinely scanned in a physical periodicals library will simply not be found. Thus, articles have fewer references / citations. It seems reasonable to suggest that this would be true of any writing - the more we grow dependent on search engines the less likely we will be to spend lots of time reading loosely related articles. Deep, reflective thinking around a topic may become sacrificed in the name of efficiency - finding what you want ASAP.

The whole book centres around thinking and remembering - essential parts of writing, so I think even when it is not specifically applied to the art of writing it's all very relevant. We are getting out of the habit of 'deep' reading as our brains adapt (both chemically and anatomically) to new ways of processing information. What we might call 'contemplative' thinking is getting lost in the quest for immediacy and sheer quantity of information. Quantities that our working memories simply cannot hold, and therefore do not get committed to Long Term Memory.

And the question immediately comes to mind - if reading habits are being changed, how does this affect a writer? How will writers have to adapt? And - here's the question - does the fact it is probably inevitable mean that it is good?

Hmm... this comment could spur a few blog posts, come to think of it

Kathryn said...

my 16 year old daughter recently listened to 'Pride and Prejudice' and 'Great Expectations' on audiodisc on a long journey. She commented that she couldn't possibly have read them (and I know she started P&P after she'd read 'Emma'). So what about listening to stories - is that affected by changes in reading habits?

Alex G said...

Thanks Lucy - fascinating stuff.

Sue Horder-Mason said...

This is so true and yes I was guilty of scan reading your blog then I went back and read every word.

Lucy Mills said...

Kathryn - interesting question and I'm not sure I know the answer to that one...thanks for providing food for thought!

"The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people."- Richard Foster