You can tell when I get time to sit down and read my favorite magazines. The last post was spawned from an article in Psychology Today. This one comes from an article in a special issue of Discover Magazine, “The Brain,” Fall 2010 issue. The article: The Internet Makes Deep Thought Difficult, if Not Impossible, by Nicolas Carr.
I love the internet. I love blogging. I love trivia and searching through the web for interesting things ranging from the scientific to gossip. I love it as a research tool. I now have my I-Pad to keep me well-connected wherever I go.
I mean, here I am sitting in front of the computer at this very moment. I do it day in and day out. My work requires it. Thankfully, my computer work is largely “composing,” drafting documents about which I have to do a whole lotta thinking. That may be the one saving grace I have, given what I am about to say.
Mr. Carr has a lot to say about the price we pay for this worldwide web convenience. As he puts it, the Net is “…chipping away at [one’s] capacity for concentration and contemplation, on line or not. [our minds] now expect to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles…” He goes further with a discussion of how his brain had become “hungry” for the quick stimulation of the Net; how he began to notice his own inability to pay attention to one thing for more than a couple of minutes. It worried him, it worries me.
So, he looked to science to see what the heck is going on here. Let me give you some snippets:
* Online we are in “..an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning.”
* Here’s a real worry: It’s not just that we tend to use the Net regularly, even obsessively. It’s that the Net delivers precisely the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli—repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive—that have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions…with the exception of the alphabets and number systems the Net may well be the single most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use.
* The Net seizes our attention only to scatter it. We focus intensively on the medium itself, on the flickering screen, but we’re distracted by the medium’s rapid-fire delivery of competing messages and stimuli. He describes the clicking of the mouse, the information delivery in the blink of the eye, the flitting from one screen to the next—all perfect for training the brain to need something NOW, to avoid the work of deep thinking for the reward of cognition and problem-solving.
In other words, as he describes it, we are training on the Net for top-water thinking, never plumbing the depths. And, it’s more than mere training— the use of the internet is, according to neuroscientists, remodeling our brains.
There follows an interesting discussion of memory and how the brain builds toward problem-solving and deeper thinking as we put information into it. And one psychologist featured points out that the Net teaches us to multi-task but there is a cost: this hampers our ability to think deeply and creatively and works against inventiveness and productiveness. This kind of multi-tasking, he says, is “…learning to be skillful at a superficial level.”
I can so see this. Can’t you?
And, just as in my last post on fast food, my superficial mind wandered over to the children of our society. What of them? My poor, old brain is largely set it its ways (believe me, it is set). But what of the kids who use this marvelous device day in and day out? Is this going to reshape our society of, say, fifty years hence? Are we going to miss out on deep thinkers? I do not want that to be the case.
I never could have done what I have done without the habits of punctuality, order, and diligence, without the determination to concentrate myself on one subject at a time... Charles Dickens
So, backseat driver that I am, let me say to parents of young kids out there (this is your codger speaking): let your kids use the internet. Let them enjoy the easy access to information and all the bells and whistles that come with it. BUT moderate it.
Make your kids spend time with creative activities. Make them read—you know, in the old-fashioned way—require that they be carried away by a wonderful book to another place and time. Make them write things without the use of the Net to craft their opinions or their conclusions. Make them play without a computer, using only their imaginations. Force them into opportunities to enjoy themselves, in solitude and contemplation. I did it, lying on my back in the grass on a summer’s day, making shapes of clouds and dreaming of riding my horse across distant plains.
Please, keep their brains going deeper.
I tell ya: What the kids of today need are more stickhorses….C