Distracted from distraction by distraction*... a book review

I finished reading The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains by Nicholas Carr about a week ago and I've been digesting it ever since. I'm not sure I can even now write a completely coherent review, but I'm going to try. There is just so much in this book.

The thesis of the book is that by using and relying on the internet for more and more of our day and for more and more varied tasks, we are changing our brains... and not necessarily for the better. The Internet is training us for distraction. As a result, it is more difficult to think deeply, to engage in extended serious thought, or to sustain concentration.

 "... it would be a serious mistake to look narrowly at the Net's benefits and conclude that the technology is making us more intelligent. Jordan Grafman, head of the cognitive neuroscience unit at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, explains that the constant shifting of our attention when we're online may make our brains more nimble when it comes to multitasking, but improving our ability to multitask actually hampers our ability to think deeply and creatively." (p. 140)

I admit that reading something like this is, to me, preaching to the choir. I don't like to multitask, don't do it well, and I don't actually think anyone does it really well. If I'm already skeptical, then I'm sure to like a book which tells me, "What we're doing when we multitask 'is learning to be skillful at a superficial level.'" (p. 141) Or, "Intensive multitaskers are 'suckers for irrelevancy,' commented Clifford Ness, the Stanford professor who led the research [a 2009 study], 'Everything distracts them." Michael Merzenich offers an even bleaker assessment. As we multitask online, her says, we are 'training our brains to pay attention to the crap.'" (p. 142)

I may not like it, but when I'm online, I am as distracted as anyone else. I flip back and forth between what I'm writing to other important things I need to keep an eye on. (We desperately need some sort of font to indicate sarcasm.) This book just confirms what I had already experienced. My brain acts differently when I'm using a computer. I have spent most of the year with limited computer time, and I've actually really liked it. I need to be more diligent again, because there is a creeping aspect to it, though. One day I don't turn off the computer until a little later, and that continues, and then suddenly you discover it seems to be on all the time again and once more has taken over your life. Time for me to go back to just my two hours in the morning.

There seems to be some research to back up a more moderate approach to computer usage. "The development of a well-rounded mind requires both an ability to find and quickly parse a wide range of information and a capacity for open-ended reflection. There needs to be time for efficient data collection and time for inefficient contemplation, time to operate the machine and time to sit idly in the garden. ... The problem today is that we're losing our ability to strike a balance between these very different states of mind. Mentally, we're in perpetual motion." (p. 168)

It was the section on memory that I found most interesting, though. As computers become more and more a part of our lives, we have a tendency to see our brains as just really good computers. How many of us have said something along the lines of, "My brain is full," meaning that like a hard drive, there is no more empty space. Yet, our assumptions seem to be wrong. "' Unlike a computer,' writes Nelson Cowan, an expert on memory who teaches at the University of Missouri, 'the normal human brain never reaches a point at which experiences can no longer be committed to memory; the brain cannot be full.'" (p. 192)

In fact, by using our memories more, we create the ability within ourselves to remember even more. "The very act of remembering, explains clinical psychologist Sheila Crowett in The Neurobiology of Learning, appears to modify the brain in a way that can make it easier to learn ideas and skills in the future," (p. 192) But, in addition to relying on our own memory as opposed to some external source, we also need to give our brains time to sort things out. "The key to memory consolidation is attentiveness. Storing explicit memories and, equally important, forming connections between them requires strong mental concentration, amplified by repetition or by intense intellectual or emotional engagement. The sharper the attention, the sharper the memory." (p. 193)

This is getting long and since you're probably already distracted and ready to move onto the next flickering page, I'll end here. There are many implications in all of this... how to best educate our children, how distractedness and the inability to concentrate affects our ability to be aware of subtle emotions in others, the need for real rest away from electronics, etc. As much as some of us would like to, we can't really pull the plug and go cold turkey from computers. At least not if we want to continue to function and interact with others in the same century. But we do need to take a good look at how and why we are using technology and remember what makes us human.

Highly recommended.

*Title is from T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets, and quoted in the book.


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