How the internet affects the brain

More on the prospect that the internet makes us dumber.  In this case, by rewiring our brains:

Nicholas Carr, a veteran writer about technology, is not sanguine about what he learned about his own Internet-infused brain, much less my brain.

“What can science tell us about the actual effects that Internet use is having on the way our minds work?” he asks. His answer, iterated throughout this often repetitive but otherwise excellent book: “The news is even more disturbing than I had suspected. Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, educators and Web designers point to the same conclusion: When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking and superficial learning. It’s possible to think deeply while surfing the Net, just like it’s possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but that’s not the type of thinking the technology encourages and rewards.”

Carr cites numerous studies to delineate not only the impact on the brain, but also the alterations in brain biology that lead to the impact. It turns out the human brain is a shape shifter, the technical term being “neuroplasticity.” The phenomenon is not easy to explain, but Carr is adept at explaining with as little jargon as possible. “As particular circuits in our brain strengthen through the repetition of a physical or mental activity, they begin to transform that activity into a habit.”

It is not enough for Carr to explain the contemporary brain alterations linked to regular Internet use. He puts neuroplasticity into historical context. He explains how the evolution of a written alphabet, accompanied by development of a standardized syntax (the order of words within a phrase or sentence) altered the human brain. A big difference exists neurologically, it seems, between hearing a story and reading a story on a page.

Reading became more efficient. Readers became more attentive. “To read a long book silently required an ability to concentrate intently over a long period of time, to ‘lose oneself’ in the pages of a book,” according to Carr. Developing that sort of discipline evolved slowly. Because of the Internet, that evolution is halting and apparently reversing.

Sure, Internet users are literate, and highly developed literacy will not disappear. But, Carr notes, in meshing hard science with his personal experience circa 2010, “The world of the screen … is a very different place from the world of the page. A new intellectual ethic is taking hold. The pathways in our brains are once again being rerouted.”

via ‘The Shallows’ by Nicholas Carr: The Internet warps you – USATODAY.com.

The book cites numerous scientific studies to back up the thesis.  I know some of you think I am too dismissive of the findings of modern science, being skeptical of a lot of the climate change alarmism, among other things.  I find myself skeptical of this claim also.  Are you?  If so, what basis do you have for your opinion?  If not, should we ban the internet, at least for young people with their developing brains?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Eric Brown

    While the internet may promote a cursory reading, doesn’t it at least promote more reading in general? I think comparing how the brain works when surfing the internet to how the brain works when reading Shakespeare or Foucault is a faulty comparison. The comparison should be between surfing the web and channel surfing on TV.

    Also, historically I wonder about the emphasis put upon reading a book “silently” – as for a long time period that was just not how reading was done – reading was done aloud for the sake of those who could not read (at least in the Classical world, and also into the religious Medieval world).

    This may just end up being research spurned on by the fact that people now have the freedom to click away and find another source of knowledge rather than one’s own massive tome.

  • Eric Brown

    While the internet may promote a cursory reading, doesn’t it at least promote more reading in general? I think comparing how the brain works when surfing the internet to how the brain works when reading Shakespeare or Foucault is a faulty comparison. The comparison should be between surfing the web and channel surfing on TV.

    Also, historically I wonder about the emphasis put upon reading a book “silently” – as for a long time period that was just not how reading was done – reading was done aloud for the sake of those who could not read (at least in the Classical world, and also into the religious Medieval world).

    This may just end up being research spurned on by the fact that people now have the freedom to click away and find another source of knowledge rather than one’s own massive tome.

  • Larry

    I never heard of this before reading this today, but I’m not as skeptical of it. I don’t agree with how he frames the discussion, e.g. evolving, but the effects he discusses I’ve long suspected. In my world of vocation what I call the “real thinkers” and “problem solvers”, all having equal degrees, are almost without an exception very light on the internet. They don’t avoid it entirely but they tend to be people who do read more of the printed page. Those who are not generally are internet heavy. It’s not as if they don’t have the education but there is some effect or at least apparently. Whether that’s the internet itself or more the difference in which one reads a book versus the internet I don’t know.

    I’m not sure if it’s the internet or computer.

    One thing connected, try this little experiment, especially if one’s writing habit is dominantly typing on the cpu in some form or another: First, pick a subject and write about it via your cpu word processing software. Note how the speed and pace and flow at which you do so. Then, pick another subject get an ink pen and a pad of paper, sit down and write about it. Note the same things. Compare the two.

    Side fact, we don’t blink our eyes while on the cpu as opposed to books. A fact my eye doctor told me about and to watch out for as it damages, at length, the eye by drying the eyeball out.

  • Larry

    I never heard of this before reading this today, but I’m not as skeptical of it. I don’t agree with how he frames the discussion, e.g. evolving, but the effects he discusses I’ve long suspected. In my world of vocation what I call the “real thinkers” and “problem solvers”, all having equal degrees, are almost without an exception very light on the internet. They don’t avoid it entirely but they tend to be people who do read more of the printed page. Those who are not generally are internet heavy. It’s not as if they don’t have the education but there is some effect or at least apparently. Whether that’s the internet itself or more the difference in which one reads a book versus the internet I don’t know.

    I’m not sure if it’s the internet or computer.

    One thing connected, try this little experiment, especially if one’s writing habit is dominantly typing on the cpu in some form or another: First, pick a subject and write about it via your cpu word processing software. Note how the speed and pace and flow at which you do so. Then, pick another subject get an ink pen and a pad of paper, sit down and write about it. Note the same things. Compare the two.

    Side fact, we don’t blink our eyes while on the cpu as opposed to books. A fact my eye doctor told me about and to watch out for as it damages, at length, the eye by drying the eyeball out.

  • Dan Kempin

    I read the firs half of the quoet and the first snetence of everyone’s post’s and thought I would respnod with my own idea’s.

    . . .

    Ambrose of Milan, the great Christian Bishop, was said to be particularly brilliant as a scholar. Among other things, he was noted for reading silently to himself–rare enough in itself–WITHOUT moving his lips! (I wish I knew how to set italics so I didn’t have to e-shout.)

    Clearly the brain behaves in the way it is taught to behave. That is not necessarily good or bad, but I would think it a “no brainer” to recognize the change that technology has brought to the way we behave and think.

  • Dan Kempin

    I read the firs half of the quoet and the first snetence of everyone’s post’s and thought I would respnod with my own idea’s.

    . . .

    Ambrose of Milan, the great Christian Bishop, was said to be particularly brilliant as a scholar. Among other things, he was noted for reading silently to himself–rare enough in itself–WITHOUT moving his lips! (I wish I knew how to set italics so I didn’t have to e-shout.)

    Clearly the brain behaves in the way it is taught to behave. That is not necessarily good or bad, but I would think it a “no brainer” to recognize the change that technology has brought to the way we behave and think.

  • http://lutherama.blogspot.com Dr. Luther in 21st Century

    I don’t think the internet is making us stupid, just lazy. Why go to a library and look up credible information when you can just go to Wikipedia and find oodles of questionable material about lots of things.

    I still read books and journals for my research, but that is because I have trouble following type on a screen for overly long. Plus, I like to highlight and make notes in the margins. At the same time the internet is a main source for some of my journal articles. Science has a free archive subscription that comes in handy if you don’t mind articles a year old.

    As with many tools, the internet is a two edge sword. One the one hand, it can be a great tool for conveying useful information quickly and make us more knowledgeable. Yet, at the same time, it can feed us bad information and deprave information filling us with harmful garbage.

  • http://lutherama.blogspot.com Dr. Luther in 21st Century

    I don’t think the internet is making us stupid, just lazy. Why go to a library and look up credible information when you can just go to Wikipedia and find oodles of questionable material about lots of things.

    I still read books and journals for my research, but that is because I have trouble following type on a screen for overly long. Plus, I like to highlight and make notes in the margins. At the same time the internet is a main source for some of my journal articles. Science has a free archive subscription that comes in handy if you don’t mind articles a year old.

    As with many tools, the internet is a two edge sword. One the one hand, it can be a great tool for conveying useful information quickly and make us more knowledgeable. Yet, at the same time, it can feed us bad information and deprave information filling us with harmful garbage.

  • Chelly Bouferrache

    I just finished a long paper on addiction…Internet addiction. It does seem as though the Internet does really change how the brain works. My specific focus was Internet pornography addiction – this problem went way beyond how much time people spend on the Internet but also how it changed the quality of their close relationships and how they thought about and treated other people. Norman Doidge has an excellent book out that explains neuroplasticity – The Brain That Changes Itself – it is an easy read and fascinating. He talks about the Internet in at least one chapter and he explains how our brains rewire in many different ways.

  • Chelly Bouferrache

    I just finished a long paper on addiction…Internet addiction. It does seem as though the Internet does really change how the brain works. My specific focus was Internet pornography addiction – this problem went way beyond how much time people spend on the Internet but also how it changed the quality of their close relationships and how they thought about and treated other people. Norman Doidge has an excellent book out that explains neuroplasticity – The Brain That Changes Itself – it is an easy read and fascinating. He talks about the Internet in at least one chapter and he explains how our brains rewire in many different ways.

  • DonS

    I believe this is a real phenomenon, and Internet addiction (the widespread availability of pornography to users of all ages is a catastrophe yet to be fully understood) is a serious problem. But the fundamental problems addressed by the article began with TV.

  • DonS

    I believe this is a real phenomenon, and Internet addiction (the widespread availability of pornography to users of all ages is a catastrophe yet to be fully understood) is a serious problem. But the fundamental problems addressed by the article began with TV.

  • http://lutherama.blogspot.com Dr. Luther in 21st Century

    I think we need to distinguish between addiction and internet use. Addiction is a whole different animal than using the internet. Addiction is a defined psychosis with identifiable symptoms. Where as internet use in general is not a psychosis, one can use the internet with out exhibiting addiction symptoms. So please, let’s not confuse the two.

    The legitimate research that I have seen in regards to the effect of the internet and tv indicate that it has changed how in take in information. We have moved from a linguistic dissemination of information back to a pictorial dissemination of information. One could say we have regressed back to hieroglyphics.

  • http://lutherama.blogspot.com Dr. Luther in 21st Century

    I think we need to distinguish between addiction and internet use. Addiction is a whole different animal than using the internet. Addiction is a defined psychosis with identifiable symptoms. Where as internet use in general is not a psychosis, one can use the internet with out exhibiting addiction symptoms. So please, let’s not confuse the two.

    The legitimate research that I have seen in regards to the effect of the internet and tv indicate that it has changed how in take in information. We have moved from a linguistic dissemination of information back to a pictorial dissemination of information. One could say we have regressed back to hieroglyphics.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I don’t doubt for a minute that the Internet changes the way we think — but then, this is true for all technologies. We used to have to do everything in our heads. Accordingly, our heads were really useful. But at some point, we used our heads to learn how to use stuff outside of our heads. As we stopped exercising certain parts of our brains, those parts got weaker, but obviously we considered the exchange to be worthwhile.

    Consider books. People almost certainly used to have a much greater memory power than do people now. And yet, the amount of knowledge available to book users was vastly greater than what any one person could hold in his head. So we traded in memory power for access to greater knowledge.

    I don’t see the Internet as any different in this regard. We’re more apt to complain about these changes right now because we’re the generation that’s seeing these changes first happen. Perhaps some worried about how books were going to change the rituals of reciting epic poems around a campfire. No one seems too concerned about that now, though.

    So the question isn’t (or shouldn’t be), “Do tools change the way we think”, because the answer to that is obviously: Yes. The question should be, “Is that a good thing?” Unfortunately, that is a very difficult question to answer.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I don’t doubt for a minute that the Internet changes the way we think — but then, this is true for all technologies. We used to have to do everything in our heads. Accordingly, our heads were really useful. But at some point, we used our heads to learn how to use stuff outside of our heads. As we stopped exercising certain parts of our brains, those parts got weaker, but obviously we considered the exchange to be worthwhile.

    Consider books. People almost certainly used to have a much greater memory power than do people now. And yet, the amount of knowledge available to book users was vastly greater than what any one person could hold in his head. So we traded in memory power for access to greater knowledge.

    I don’t see the Internet as any different in this regard. We’re more apt to complain about these changes right now because we’re the generation that’s seeing these changes first happen. Perhaps some worried about how books were going to change the rituals of reciting epic poems around a campfire. No one seems too concerned about that now, though.

    So the question isn’t (or shouldn’t be), “Do tools change the way we think”, because the answer to that is obviously: Yes. The question should be, “Is that a good thing?” Unfortunately, that is a very difficult question to answer.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    DLi2C (@4), “I don’t think the internet is making us stupid, just lazy. Why go to a library and look up credible information when you can just go to Wikipedia and find oodles of questionable material about lots of things.”

    Perhaps you’ve never dealt with school kids, but I see no evidence that the Internet has affected our laziness. It’s merely a channel for it. As was, in different days, the library. (I suppose, a long time ago, someone complained that libraries made people lazy, since they no longer figured things out for themselves, but just went and looked things up.) Lazy students will be lazy whether they’re at the library (“here’s one book on the subject; all of my footnotes will refer to it, and it alone”) or on the Internet (“I’ll just look up the Wikipedia article and be done with it.”)

    As for Wikipedia, I’m getting pretty tired of people bashing it (at least without understanding how it works). Wikipedia requires sources, you know? And if you follow the footnotes, you can discover those sources yourself and read them, and determine how accurate the article actually is. I’ve done this from time to time, and in at least one case, the Wikipedia article misrepresented what its source said. And guess what? On Wikipedia, you can fix that! Now, try to do the same with Encyclopedia Brittanica. What are its sources? Do EB’s articles accurately represent the facts? What will you do if they don’t?

    You also said (@7), “We have moved from a linguistic dissemination of information back to a pictorial dissemination of information. One could say we have regressed back to hieroglyphics.” So … am I supposed to pretend I can’t read your comment, which you left on the Internet? How does your comment make sense, given its context? TV, I could see. But, um, I’m pretty certain we’re using text here.

    Also, hieroglyphs — at least in Egypt — were not merely representational drawings. Over time, they evolved, in part, to become something like an alphabet. Naturally, I learned this fact from Wikipedia.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    DLi2C (@4), “I don’t think the internet is making us stupid, just lazy. Why go to a library and look up credible information when you can just go to Wikipedia and find oodles of questionable material about lots of things.”

    Perhaps you’ve never dealt with school kids, but I see no evidence that the Internet has affected our laziness. It’s merely a channel for it. As was, in different days, the library. (I suppose, a long time ago, someone complained that libraries made people lazy, since they no longer figured things out for themselves, but just went and looked things up.) Lazy students will be lazy whether they’re at the library (“here’s one book on the subject; all of my footnotes will refer to it, and it alone”) or on the Internet (“I’ll just look up the Wikipedia article and be done with it.”)

    As for Wikipedia, I’m getting pretty tired of people bashing it (at least without understanding how it works). Wikipedia requires sources, you know? And if you follow the footnotes, you can discover those sources yourself and read them, and determine how accurate the article actually is. I’ve done this from time to time, and in at least one case, the Wikipedia article misrepresented what its source said. And guess what? On Wikipedia, you can fix that! Now, try to do the same with Encyclopedia Brittanica. What are its sources? Do EB’s articles accurately represent the facts? What will you do if they don’t?

    You also said (@7), “We have moved from a linguistic dissemination of information back to a pictorial dissemination of information. One could say we have regressed back to hieroglyphics.” So … am I supposed to pretend I can’t read your comment, which you left on the Internet? How does your comment make sense, given its context? TV, I could see. But, um, I’m pretty certain we’re using text here.

    Also, hieroglyphs — at least in Egypt — were not merely representational drawings. Over time, they evolved, in part, to become something like an alphabet. Naturally, I learned this fact from Wikipedia.

  • Larry

    Todd identifies a good point that archeologist generally ask as a fundamental query when assessing a society and a technology in that society. There’s a distinction between the intended problem a technology was designed to address and the actual effect the technology generates.

  • Larry

    Todd identifies a good point that archeologist generally ask as a fundamental query when assessing a society and a technology in that society. There’s a distinction between the intended problem a technology was designed to address and the actual effect the technology generates.

  • Booklover

    There must be a term for stealing time on someone’s blog to write about something else. I’m sorry–that’s what I’m doing tonight. Your topic was sort of about books so I’m diverting it somewhat.

    I lost probably 2000 of my classic books in a flash flood here in Montana on Father’s Day. (We also had a tornado here but not on our house.) It filled our entire basement to the ceiling with mud and water, and we lost everything there, including my book collection.

    But there are many things good that have come from it. My family has spent the last 5 days working together instead of pecking away at individual computers and watching individual TV. The TV and the computers (except for this one) are gone now, and I am mooching off a motel’s wi-fi just to get online.

    Another good thing–all of my Gene Veith books and my Treasury of Prayer were upstairs!!! :-)

  • Booklover

    There must be a term for stealing time on someone’s blog to write about something else. I’m sorry–that’s what I’m doing tonight. Your topic was sort of about books so I’m diverting it somewhat.

    I lost probably 2000 of my classic books in a flash flood here in Montana on Father’s Day. (We also had a tornado here but not on our house.) It filled our entire basement to the ceiling with mud and water, and we lost everything there, including my book collection.

    But there are many things good that have come from it. My family has spent the last 5 days working together instead of pecking away at individual computers and watching individual TV. The TV and the computers (except for this one) are gone now, and I am mooching off a motel’s wi-fi just to get online.

    Another good thing–all of my Gene Veith books and my Treasury of Prayer were upstairs!!! :-)

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    The consequences of heavy Internet use remind me of a joke:

    There are two kids of people; those who can concentrate for a long time, and….Hey, look a birdie!

    (guilty)

    Seriously, I would agree that what we do trains how we think, and if we train ourselves to tweet, we will find ourselves in that habit. On the flip side, I found great improvement in my thinking when I changed churches from one with 5-10 minute homilies to one with half hour or more sermons, well thought out. It works.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    The consequences of heavy Internet use remind me of a joke:

    There are two kids of people; those who can concentrate for a long time, and….Hey, look a birdie!

    (guilty)

    Seriously, I would agree that what we do trains how we think, and if we train ourselves to tweet, we will find ourselves in that habit. On the flip side, I found great improvement in my thinking when I changed churches from one with 5-10 minute homilies to one with half hour or more sermons, well thought out. It works.

  • http://lutherama.blogspot.com Dr. Luther in the 21st Century

    tODD
    I am bashing Wikipedia because I do know how it works, and for somethings it is a reasonable source for basic information. The problem is when people treat as a source that need not be verified. Besides have you seen somethings they call sources? BTW, I work with middle & high schoolers all the time. I can remember reading word for word the wikipedia article on Martin Luther turned in by one of my confirmads, it discussed what kind of shoe Luther wore. I do believe I logged in and removed the particular section. The internet has increased our laziness simply because it is easier to be lazy with the internet. At least the kid who only used one book actually went to the library. As for Encyclopedia Britannica, I generally discourage their use. They are far too behind the times and usually outdated in the information they contain. But, then I am more used to doing research in science fields where things move faster than encyclopedia can be published.
    At the same time, for anything remotely controversial Wikipedia is notoriously subject to editing wars.

    The move to pictorial language is by no means complete and may never fully happen. But more and more we are seeing interfaces that are purely pictorial in nature.

  • http://lutherama.blogspot.com Dr. Luther in the 21st Century

    tODD
    I am bashing Wikipedia because I do know how it works, and for somethings it is a reasonable source for basic information. The problem is when people treat as a source that need not be verified. Besides have you seen somethings they call sources? BTW, I work with middle & high schoolers all the time. I can remember reading word for word the wikipedia article on Martin Luther turned in by one of my confirmads, it discussed what kind of shoe Luther wore. I do believe I logged in and removed the particular section. The internet has increased our laziness simply because it is easier to be lazy with the internet. At least the kid who only used one book actually went to the library. As for Encyclopedia Britannica, I generally discourage their use. They are far too behind the times and usually outdated in the information they contain. But, then I am more used to doing research in science fields where things move faster than encyclopedia can be published.
    At the same time, for anything remotely controversial Wikipedia is notoriously subject to editing wars.

    The move to pictorial language is by no means complete and may never fully happen. But more and more we are seeing interfaces that are purely pictorial in nature.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Dlit2C (@13), you said of Wikipedia, “The problem is when people treat as a source that need not be verified.” How is this unique to Wikipedia? Any source has a potential for bias and error. Trusting any single source — whether a book or Wikipedia — is likely to lead to shoddy research or conclusions. But you’re not bashing books, just Wikipedia.

    “Have you seen somethings they call sources?” Well, let’s see. On the Martin Luther article, their references cite at least six CPH works, the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation, works from the Cambridge and Yale university presses … are those the kind of shoddy sources you’re referring to?

    “The internet has increased our laziness simply because it is easier to be lazy with the internet.” Your conclusion doesn’t follow. Laziness is a trait, irrespective of the tools involved. Hard workers still work hard, using the Internet. And lazy people are still lazy on the Internet. In order to argue that “The internet has increased our laziness”, you’d have to argue how hard workers have decreased in number or measurable effort due to the advent of the Internet. I don’t see you arguing that.

    “At least the kid who only used one book actually went to the library.” What’s so great about that? Is the library magical? What, because you’re surrounded by knowledge? Then why isn’t the Internet or Wikipedia similarly magical? If you don’t know how to find or use that knowledge — whether in the library or on the Internet — it’s still of no value to you.

    “As for Encyclopedia Britannica, I generally discourage their use. They are far too behind the times and usually outdated in the information they contain.” Indeed. You know what would be great? Some way to disseminate information rapidly to anyone. I wish that existed! Then scientific journals could keep us all up to date! Oh well, maybe someone will invent that some day. Ahem.

    “At the same time, for anything remotely controversial Wikipedia is notoriously subject to editing wars.” And? Are you arguing this is not the case for books, encyclopedias, scientific journals, etc.?

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Dlit2C (@13), you said of Wikipedia, “The problem is when people treat as a source that need not be verified.” How is this unique to Wikipedia? Any source has a potential for bias and error. Trusting any single source — whether a book or Wikipedia — is likely to lead to shoddy research or conclusions. But you’re not bashing books, just Wikipedia.

    “Have you seen somethings they call sources?” Well, let’s see. On the Martin Luther article, their references cite at least six CPH works, the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation, works from the Cambridge and Yale university presses … are those the kind of shoddy sources you’re referring to?

    “The internet has increased our laziness simply because it is easier to be lazy with the internet.” Your conclusion doesn’t follow. Laziness is a trait, irrespective of the tools involved. Hard workers still work hard, using the Internet. And lazy people are still lazy on the Internet. In order to argue that “The internet has increased our laziness”, you’d have to argue how hard workers have decreased in number or measurable effort due to the advent of the Internet. I don’t see you arguing that.

    “At least the kid who only used one book actually went to the library.” What’s so great about that? Is the library magical? What, because you’re surrounded by knowledge? Then why isn’t the Internet or Wikipedia similarly magical? If you don’t know how to find or use that knowledge — whether in the library or on the Internet — it’s still of no value to you.

    “As for Encyclopedia Britannica, I generally discourage their use. They are far too behind the times and usually outdated in the information they contain.” Indeed. You know what would be great? Some way to disseminate information rapidly to anyone. I wish that existed! Then scientific journals could keep us all up to date! Oh well, maybe someone will invent that some day. Ahem.

    “At the same time, for anything remotely controversial Wikipedia is notoriously subject to editing wars.” And? Are you arguing this is not the case for books, encyclopedias, scientific journals, etc.?


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X