The Shallows: What The Internet is Doing to Our Brains – Nicholas Carr

Here are my comments on the book:

What is the internet doing to our brain? According to Nicholas Carr, American writer who has published books and articles on technology, business, and culture and a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction for this book, the internet is changing the way that we read, remember, and think. With regards to reading, we now tend to read in a “F” shape rather than the traditional line-by-line method. In addition, we tend to skim, skip, and jump around more on the text. This is greatly due to the fact that we feel inundated with the amount of available content that’s out there on the internet. As for remembering, our ability to remember is somewhat decreasing due to the numerous external distractions that are pulling away our attention from the thing we’re focusing on to something else. In addition to negatively affecting our memory, having a vast amount of external stimuli also affects our cognition and our ability to control our minds as the external stimuli taxes our brains.

I personally enjoyed reading most of this book as it was quite informative, well researched, and had some interesting points. However, I wasn’t totally engaged throughout the whole book as some parts of it were either irrelevant to me or that I just wasn’t interested in. Some parts of the book were a bit dry and as a result, caused me to just skip ahead to the juicier parts. Overall though, if you’re interested in books on psychology or how the brain works, this would be a good book to add to your collection.

 

My rating:
Screen Shot 2015-11-17 at 12.58.37 PM

Check out the book here:
Amazon US
Amazon Canada
Amazon UK

 

Here are some of the points to the book:

1. Our brains are very “plastic” which means that it’s always breaking old connections and forming new ones.THE ADULT BRAIN, it turns out, is not just plastic but, as James Olds, a professor of neuroscience who directs the Krasnow Institute 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. Our neurons are always breaking old connections and forming new ones, and brand-new nerve cells are always being created. ‘The brain,’ observes Olds, ‘has the ability to reprogram itself on the fly, altering the way it functions.’ We don’t yet know all the details of how the brain reprograms itself, but it has become clear that, as Freud proposed, the secret lies mainly in the rich chemical broth of our synapses. What goes on in the microscopic spaces between our neurons is exceedingly complicated, but in simple terms it involves various chemical reactions that register and record experiences in neural pathways. Every time we perform a task or experience a sensation, whether physical or mental, a set of neurons in our brains is activated. If they’re in proximity, these neurons join together through the exchange of synaptic neurotransmitters like the amino acid glutamate. As the same experience is repeated, the synaptic links between the neurons grow stronger and more plentiful through both physiological changes, such as the release of higher concentrations of neurotransmitters, and anatomical ones, such as the generation of new neurons or the growth of new synaptic terminals on existing axons and dendrites. Synaptic links can also weaken in response to experiences, again as a result of physiological and anatomical alterations. What we learn as we live is embedded in the ever-changing cellular connections inside our heads. The chains of linked neurons form our minds’ true ‘vital paths’ Today, scientists sum up the essential dynamic of neuroplasticity with a saying known as Hebb’s rule: ‘Cells that fire together wire together.’

 

2. Reading online may not be as effective as reading print.One other finding of the study sheds light on the differences between reading Web pages and reading books. The researchers found that when people search the Net they exhibit a very different pattern of brain activity than they do when they read book-like text. Book readers have a lot of activity in regions associated with language, memory, and visual processing, but they don’t display much activity in the prefrontal regions associated with decision making and problem solving. Experienced Net users, by contrast, display extensive activity across all those brain regions when they scan and search Web pages. The good news here is that Web surfing, because it engages so many brain functions, may help keep older people’s minds sharp. Searching and browsing seem to ‘exercise’ the brain in a way similar to solving crossword puzzles, says Small. But the extensive activity in the brains of surfers also points to why deep reading and other acts of sustained concentration become so difficult online. The need to evaluate links and make related navigational choices, while also processing a multiplicity of fleeting sensory stimuli, requires constant mental coordination and decision making, distracting the brain from the work of interpreting text or other information. Whenever we, as readers, come upon a link, we have to pause, for at least a split second, to allow our prefrontal cortex to evaluate whether or not we should click on it. The redirection of our mental resources, from reading words to making judgments, may be imperceptible to us—our brains are quick—but it’s been shown to impede comprehension and retention, particularly when it’s repeated frequently. As the executive functions of the prefrontal cortex kick in, our brains become not only exercised but overtaxed. In a very real way, the Web returns us to the time of scriptura continua, when reading was a cognitively strenuous act. In reading online, Maryanne Wolf says, we sacrifice the facility that makes deep reading possible. We revert to being ‘mere decoders of information.’ Our ability to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distractions remains largely disengaged.

 

3. To increase your memory on a certain thing, focus/concentrate more on it. WHAT DETERMINES WHAT we remember and what we forget? 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. ‘For a memory to persist,’ writes Kandel, ‘the incoming information must be thoroughly and deeply processed. This is accomplished by attending to the information and associating it meaningfully and systematically with knowledge already well established in memory.’ If we’re unable to attend to the information in our working memory, the information lasts only as long as the neurons that hold it maintain their electric charge—a few seconds at best. Then it’s gone, leaving little or no trace in the mind. Attention may seem ethereal—a ‘ghost inside the head,’ as the developmental psychologist Bruce McCandliss says —but it’s a genuine physical state, and it produces material effects throughout the brain. Recent experiments with mice indicate that the act of paying attention to an idea or an experience sets off a chain reaction that crisscrosses the brain. Conscious attention begins in the frontal lobes of the cerebral cortex, with the imposition of top-down, executive control over the mind’s focus. The establishment of attention leads the neurons of the cortex to send signals to neurons in the midbrain that produce the powerful neurotransmitter dopamine. The axons of these neurons reach all the way into the hippocampus, providing a distribution channel for the neurotransmitter. Once the dopamine is funneled into the synapses of the hippocampus, it jump-starts the consolidation of explicit memory, probably by activating genes that spur the synthesis of new proteins.

 

4. Clear your mind by getting out of the city and in to nature more. 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. The reason, according to attention restoration theory, or ART, is that when people aren’t being bombarded by external stimuli, their brains can, in effect, relax. They no longer have to tax their working memories by processing a stream of bottom-up distractions. The resulting state of contemplativeness strengthens their ability to control their mind. The results of the most recent such study were published in Psychological Science at the end of 2008. A team of University of Michigan researchers, led by psychologist Marc Berman, recruited some three dozen people and subjected them to a rigorous, and mentally fatiguing, series of tests designed to measure the capacity of their working memory and their ability to exert top-down control over their attention. The subjects were then divided into two groups. Half of them spent about an hour walking through a secluded woodland park, and the other half spent an equal amount of time walking along busy downtown streets. Both groups then took the tests a second time. Spending time in the park, the researchers found, ‘significantly improved’ people’s performance on the cognitive tests, indicating a substantial increase in attentiveness. Walking in the city, by contrast, led to no improvement in test results. The researchers then conducted a similar experiment with another set of people. Rather than taking walks between the rounds of testing, these subjects simply looked at photographs of either calm rural scenes or busy urban ones. The results were the same. The people who looked at pictures of nature scenes were able to exert substantially stronger control over their attention, while those who looked at city scenes showed no improvement in their attentiveness. ‘In sum,’ concluded the researchers, ‘simple and brief interactions with nature can produce marked increases in cognitive control.’ Spending time in the natural world seems to be of ‘vital importance’ to ‘effective cognitive functioning.’

 

5. Our attention span is, not surprisingly, becoming shorter and shorter. AS PEOPLE’S MINDS become attuned to the crazy quilt of Web content, media companies have to adapt to the audience’s new expectations. Many producers are chopping up their products to fit the shorter attention spans of online consumers, as well as to raise their profiles on search engines. Snippets of TV shows and movies are distributed through YouTube, Hulu, and other video services. Excerpts of radio programs are offered as podcasts or streams. Individual magazine and newspaper articles circulate in isolation. Pages of books are displayed through Amazon.com and Google Book Search. Music albums are split apart, their songs sold through iTunes or streamed through Spotify. Even the songs themselves are broken into pieces, with their riffs and hooks packaged as ringtones for cell phones or embedded in video games. There’s much to be said for what economists call the ‘unbundling’ of content. It provides people with more choices and frees them from unwanted purchases. But it also illustrates and reinforces the changing patterns of media consumption promoted by the Web. As the economist Tyler Cowen says, ‘When access [to information] is easy, we tend to favor the short, the sweet, and the bitty.’

 

By Ryan Timothy Lee

 

Thank you for reading! Please share this post with someone who you think will benefit from it. Also, join my Facebook group here, to receive exclusive content and updates on posts. If you have any book requests or recommendations, I’d love to hear them out so please let me know through an e-mail at bookstakeaway@gmail.com.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s