What Reading a Digital Bible Does to Your Mind

When Nicholas Carr wrote “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” in The Atlantic in the summer of 2008, I was totally unaware. I didn’t even know that kind of question would be asked, and I wasn’t really interested in such things at the time. I was just a designer who wanted to play with his son, make pretty graphics, and avoid losing any digits in the big paper cutter at work. Fortunately, he expanded on his interesting thesis in this year’s The Shallows; I immediately recognized myself in his early paragraphs:

Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain”…it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy…that’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

When I was in elementary and middle school, I would read a couple of books every month, and not just young adult stuff (I probably should have stuck to that though, Disclosure was a tad inappropriate for a 12-year-old). I didn’t read much in high school or college though. Reading books was hard. It would take so long to get through 100 pages that in time I’d forgotten what the beginning was about, so I’d give up and start something else—or nothing else.

Why did my reading drop off so sharply in 8th grade? The answer is obvious now: in 1995, the summer after seventh grade, we got our first real internet connection. We’d had Prodigy and AOL before, but that summer I fired up Netscape and set sale in the waters of AltaVista and Webcrawler to see what I could see. That’s when it all began. By my senior year of college about 90% of my time outside of class, work, and sleep was spent in front of a TV, an XBox, or my computer (not much of the remaining 10% was spent studying). This is where Carr’s research and my brain begin to intersect.

A book is arranged for linear thought; the ideas flow with purpose (we hope) from one to the next in a set order. As a reader, you are expected by the author to read those ideas in that order, and you expect to do it. Everything about the book’s design is meant to encourage you, and to minimize any obstacles. This allows the act of reading to be done simply and naturally, so that your mental energy can be focused on the ideas. This is “deep reading.” Little effort is needed to focus on the symbols in front of you and decode them, so you are free “to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction.”

Reading online is different. Nearly every page we encounter is full of extraneous information. Even on this site there are links to categories, recent posts and comments, and links to different types of archives. On other sites, there may or may not be links within the text, advertisements, or live RSS feeds from other sites. These things are not only distracting to the reader, but they’re intended to distract. And that makes it tough to read deeply.

Each time you have to decide whether or not to click. It may only take an instant, but when you have to do it every few hundred words, and contend with advertisements across the top, in the sidebar, and possibly in the body of the article, it takes a considerable amount of mental energy just to process and discard that info. Of course, we don’t discard everything, and when we jump to a new page, we have to do start all over again; it affects our ability for deep reading.

Until recently, this would all have been described in terms of habit: “Extended internet use leads to troubling habits of mind.” That’s because the prevailing view was that once we reach adulthood, the structure of our brains is set and immutable. But that’s no longer the case, according to research cited by Carr:

James Olds, a professor of neuroscience who directs the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason University, says that even the adult mind “is very plastic.” Nerve cells routinely break old connections and form new ones. “The brain,” according to Olds, “has the ability to reprogram itself on the fly, altering the way it functions.”

This knowledge can be freeing. We’re no longer condemned by the decisions our 6-, 10-, and 15-year-old elves made about video games and TV. We can change. And parents no longer have to fear that letting their kid watch an extra episode of Go Diego Go! is going to ruin their chances of getting into Duke. But there is also some weight to it. Read again Carr’s realization about his own diminished abilities as proof. We can change our brains for the better. We can also do some minor physiological damage. In one study he cites, after just 5 hours of internet use over 5 days, the “subjects had already rewired their brains.”

The secret is a derivative of Marshall McLuhan’s phrase, now experiencing a resurgence of popularity: “the medium is the message.” In essence, the stuff on the website—the content—doesn’t matter. It’s the fact that you’re on the internet, on a computer(or phone or whatever), that makes the difference to your brain. It’s what you use, not what you use it for.

What does this have to do with Jesus, Christianity, and your average Christian? A lot, actually. It means that you have to think about more than Bible reading and theology…the way you do things is as important as the things you do. Some examples:

  • I’m in front of a computer about 12 hours a day. I do work, entertainment, and homework online. So it makes sense to pop up Bible Gateway, YouVersion, or Bible Web App to read for class. But I had to give it up, because when I read the Bible online, I get nothing from it. There are too many distractions, so I read on paper. I can’t keyword search, I have to read whole passages. I have to wade into concepts before I fish out the nuggets for my work. Over the last year, giving up online Bible reading has changed the way I understand the Bible, and the way I understand God.
  • The discussions about online church have gotten pretty intense over the last couple of years. But among all of the theological discussion, few are asking questions about the way we think: What will moving what should be our most profound community online do to our ability to relate personally? Will it cause us to understand communication as synonymous with community? More importantly: Is the belief in some corners that online community is equal to physical community a result of intense use of social networking? The movement may be evidence of the changes our technophilia has already brought about—ditto for recent attempts at online communion and baptism.

The clearest and most beneficial implication is that reading in long-form (books, magazines, long bible passages) will enhance your ability to think deeply, which will help you understand your faith and your relationship with Jesus in profound ways. I can’t promise that you’ll one day become C.S. Lewis or John Piper if you just read enough. But you can know the Bible well, and you can think deeply about Jesus, however your brain works now. Praise the God who can truly renew our minds—and our brains.

The Shallows is well-written and well-researched. Carr includes a brief history of “intellectual technologies”, a description of how those technologies affect our brains, and some in-depth discussion of recent research on the brain. It’s insightful and quite possibly prophetic, in the tradition of Neil Postman’s Technopoly.

About Charles Jones
  • David Dunham

    I was just discussing Nick Carr this morning actually. My one contention about the popularity of this argument (the internet is making us all stupid) is that there is a fair amount of debate about its validity. It is, again, one of those issues of cause and effect. How do you prove that the internet is causing us to become stupid? No one is denying that the internet has implications for us that can be damaging, but some of this technophobia is over the top I think. It’s often pointed out that people were seriously concerned over the development of mass print publication, and yet no one still holds that fear to be valid.

  • http://spoonfulofhahne.com The Dane

    I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy…that’s rarely the case anymore.

    I hate to break it to you man, but age is the culprit. Your mind is in a continual process of breaking down.

    Honestly though, I don’t find Carr’s argument at all compelling. Ignoring the fact that there is no science behind it, it doesn’t even seem to carry much anecdotal weight. I am online a minimum of twelve hours a day and I read primarily on an electronic device. And my ability to concentrate is not substantially different from when I was twenty-two, before I had a computer.

    If anything, my reading ability has grown over the years and my ability to think about things quickly and deeply has increased.

    I think Carr’s argument’s popularity is likely based on our desire to blame something (anything, really) for our perceived inadequacies and even more on inadequacies that we might not be aware of.

  • http://www.cgthomas.com/blog Corinne Thomas

    I’m still reading the book, but the feeling I keep getting from his stories and research quotes is that he’s an old man who’s bitter about losing the sharper mind he had as a young’un in days when there were fewer things to distract him. That’s just a preliminary impression. I’ll keep reading.

    Plus, with some of the studies he cited (granted, I’m only in the first few chapters), I want to tell him, “Teh Internetz…u’r doin’ it wrong.” But that would just give him satisfaction. :)

  • http://pos51.org/ Charles Jones

    David – There are always debates about validity…that’s a good thing.

    I don’t see him as saying “the internet is making us all stupid”. The message is more that there are implications – psychological and physiological – to our use of technology. He traces historical changes in thought and life after particularly transformative technologies were introduced (maps, clocks, the press, etc.). He also includes research on the effects of internet use on the brain (far beyond the five-hour example I included).

    This isn’t technophobia, it’s just trying to put a fine point on what some of those damaging effects are.

    Dane – Anecdotally, I don’t know what else there might be to consider in your own experience. Mine was similar to Carr’s – between ’95 and 2005 I attempted many times, but could not finish a book. Between 2005 and 2008 I read about 8 books, and through concerted effort in 2009 and 2010 I’ve read at least 40. It’s much easier now, and I can concentrate better. The trade-off was that I cut out a great deal of online reading.

    My guess is that you still do a lot of long-form reading, despite the amount of time you spend online. An “electronic device” could be a lot of different things, but if you’re using an e-reader, it’s designed to remove distraction, so that it functions more like a book than a website.

    Again, the point isn’t that using the internet will make you stupid, but that the tech we use affects our thinking, and apparently our brains. I’m not sure what you mean when you say that there isn’t any science behind the argument; the book is full of research, current, recent, and not-so-recent, demonstrating the effects of repeated actions on the structure of the brain.

    Corinne – The internet focused research doesn’t really show up until chapter seven, roughly halfway through.

    To the general population – “Is Google making us stupid?” is a question, not an assertion. It’s also a headline intended to get attention. Carr isn’t answering yes, he’s pointing out that internet use can have negative affects on the brain. “The boons are real. But the come at a price.” He’s not saying it’s all bad. He’s saying, mainly, that a different type of reading (that is, acquiring information) leads to a different type of thinking. In this case, that thinking is less focused and more shallow.

  • http://www.faithandsocialmedia.com Brian Newman

    I have an iPad, and I actually find it more useful in church to move quickly to verses. Also, I like adding in a concordance to expand on the verse being discussed. I am naturally distracted, but it’s more what’s going on in my head than what is on my iPad.

    Thanks for the article!

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  • Ethan

    Great article. We all need to think more deeply about the inevitable changes the internet is bringing to the way we think on the most basic levels, and this article is a great place to start.

    Although, and I don’t mean to be a jerk, but mentioning John Piper and C. S. Lewis together a model “deep thinkers” is a little like mentioning…John Piper and C. S. Lewis together….

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