How Our Brains Have Come Full Circle (In a Sense)

One quote I liked in particular from The Shallows was from page 63: “The natural state of the human brain, like that of the brains of most of our relatives in the animal kingdom, is one of distractedness.” A few sentences before this quote Carr wrote about how “readers didn’t just become more efficient [over time]. They also became more attentive.” The second quote acknowledges how the human brain is evolving overtime to accommodate the complex activity of reading. The first six chapters of The Shallows roughly outline a brief timeline of the human brain: distracted and scattered in the time of ancient civilizations and cavemen, more developed and focused at the dawn of the invention of writing, and then rapidly becoming more sophisticated and complex as reading and writing became a necessary element to everyday human life. This has been proven true on many accounts, looking back on how the works produced by humans over the years and how they have been getting more complex and sophisticated. With the emergence of modern day technology, humans have evolved more than ever. Our brains have rewired over the decades to adapt to constantly reading in small snippets, very quickly. Our intake of information has dramatically increased due to the greater ease of access to information on countless different topics, aiding to monumental research and general public knowledge. Almost 24/7 we are gathering and processing new information in our brains from all the screens and various signs we read, so of course our brains had to adapt to this new lifestyle that technology has led us to.

This constant intake of information in small bursts has, in a way, brought our brains back to the very distractedness that is mentioned in the quotes. Before the Internet gave us the ability to find new material to read and things to learn, humans had to go to libraries and to research in physical books, sitting in front of books for hours at a time. In order to extract information and learn things from text, readers had to immerse themselves in what they were reading. Today, the opposite is true. If we see an article online of more than a few paragraphs in length, we generally tend to try and find a shorter article on the same topic. Since the emergence of the Internet, we have become accustomed to finding what we need in a few paragraphs or less. This has lead us to become more distracted when presented with a “lengthy” piece of text. Even modern day research suggests ways to cope with the distractedness of our brains while studying (bullet 2, 4, and 7).

While modern technology and the Internet did bring positive monumental change to the world, and our way of living, it has taken a toll on our brains in the form of distractedness and the high demand for quick intake of information. The benefits of this technology does far outweigh the costs, but this proves to show that nothing comes without consequence.

The Internet Impacting Our Concentration: Fact or Fiction?

After reading up to chapter seven in Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows”, I am intrigued by and have begun to ponder several of his arguments regarding how the internet is changing the way that we think. In general, Carr claims that throughout oral and written history, the human brain has changed in accordance with the dominant means of communication in a given time period. Most importantly, our brains are doing the same thing now as we begin to make the internet our primary medium for reading and communicating. However, when it comes to the internet, Carr doesn’t think that the brain’s inclination towards plasticity has had a positive impact on us. Instead, he feels that the brain’s acclimation to the digital age has had a detrimental effect on our attention spans. From the outset of the book, he makes this point clear, stating “And what the net is doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation” (Carr 6). Moreover, Carr feels that this same phenomenon has affected others in his generation as well as those who have grown up with the internet. Referring to the latter age cohort, Joe O’Shea, cited in the book, states “They don’t necessarily read a page from left to right and top to bottom. They might instead skip around, scanning for pertinent information of interest” (Carr 9).

I was specifically struck by the claim that many people my age read differently, and in a sense, incompletely. This is not something I had ever thought about or dwelled on until reading “The Shallows”. As someone who is forced to utilize both printed and online resources for school, it is important that I am able to absorb and retain information regardless of where it’s located. On the one hand, I understand where Carr is coming from because when I am reading news articles online, I occasionally tend to skip around the article to get to the main point that the headline was referring to. However, I usually do this skimming or skipping intentionally. Furthermore, when it comes to articles or important reading material for school, whether it is printed on paper or online, I take great care to read closely and make sure I am receptive to the information presented to me. I will say, though, there are times where I have trouble concentrating on what I read in a textbook for class, regardless of attempting to do a close read. I usually attribute this lack of concentration to the material, however, and not to any cognitive inability.

This topic has sparked much debate in the psychology and education fields. In this article from The Guardian, author Duncan Jeffries also uses Carr’s argument to investigate how others feel regarding the web and its impacts on concentration. I was surprised to read that a Pew Research survey found that while 77% of teachers feel that the internet has positive effects on students’ overall research, 87% of those same teachers feel that the internet is leading to shortened attention spans. In this sense, there is mixed opinion as to whether the internet has a positive or negative influence on our brains.