I just finished reading a fascinating book right now (can you tell we're on spring break?!) called The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. Someone on the Well-Trained Mind forums recommended it, and it finally came in for me at the library. His basic question is "As we enjoy the Net's bounty, are we sacrificing our ability to read and think deeply?"
I have noticed that as I spend more time on the internet, I have become less likely to want to pick up a book and read, or in fact dive into any project that will take more than about 15 minutes (which is pretty much how much uninterrupted time I ever get during the day). Instead, it is just so easy, if I have those 15 minutes, to browse on the internet, following links, checking blogs and facebook, browsing news stories (but just enough in-depth to be able to converse intelligently about them), etc. And I have been feeling that it is more difficult to put my thoughts down in writing than it used to be (although pretty much everything about my life was easier when I didn't have 8 kids and wasn't teaching high school courses, so maybe that is just where I am right now, and not a direct correlation to my internet use!). But anyway, I was interested to read what this author had to say.
He began by talking about neuroplasticity, and how for many centuries (until fairly recently) people assumed that once a brain matured, it could form no new pathways. But in fact that is not the case, and brains are remarkably resilient. But in the same way that someone who becomes blind develops new neural pathways strengthening his sense of hearing, the brain will also weaken and dissolve circuits that are neglected, whether those circuits were good or not. "The vital paths in our brains become the paths of leaast resistance." Well, that's kind of a scary thought!
Carr then discusses the history of the printed word, which was very interesting, since we are studying the medieval/renaissance time in history this year. There were the dire statistics about how younger people especially weren't reading much of anything printed anymore, but more important is how reading things on the internet is actually changing how we interact with reading, since scrolling and clicking are multi-sensory. This influences how much attention we actually pay to what we are reading, as well as how deeply we immerse ourselves in it. "The linearity of the printed book is shattered, along with the calm attentiveness it encourages in the reader."
And what is the result? " . . . 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 as it's possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but that's not the type of thinking the technology encourages and rewards." The kind of stimuli that the internet provides are the exact ones that result in quick alterations in brain circuits! And it "short-circuits both conscious and unconscious thought, preventing our minds from thinking deeply and creatively." Our brains are cognitively overloaded by all the hyperlinks, notifications, etc. available. Amazingly, research shows that you don't learn and remember as well when you are distracted!
The author discusses other areas, like Google's goal of digitizing and putting online all books, making it even easier to just find certain snippets completely out of context and without any deep contemplation of the entire work. He also had an interesting chapter on memorization, especially for someone like me who pushes memory work so hard! "What had long been viewed as a stimulus for personal insight and creativity came to be seen as a barrier to imagination and then simply as a waste of time . . . The Net quickly came to be seen as a replacement for rather than just a supplement to, personal memory." He goes on to describe how memories are made and turned into long-term memories, along with some fascinating experiments. It turns out that storing more and more long-term memories stregthens our mental powers, modifying the brain so that it becomes easier to learn new skills later. Using the internet as an artificial source of memory has none of these benefits, especially since you need attentiveness for memory consolidation in the first place, and the internet does not allow for deep attentiveness! So now many people find it hard to concentrate even when away from the computer . . . The book's conclusion: "As we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence."
All in all, a fascinating book. And I am doubly resolved to read more books, memorize more speeches and Scripture passages, work more crossword puzzles--all not online. And I am definitely resolved to keep my kids from having a ubiquitous phone in their hands at all times, playing games or texting constantly!! It's for the good of their brains . . .