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The Shallows By Nicholas Carr

Don’t you love it when someone qualified to express an opinion writes something you’ve been thinking? Or in my case, writing about (in the November issue of Table Hopping, as it turns out, but in my tech column).

In this case, the subject is how the Internet – and more specifically, our devices for accessing it – are changing our brains.

This isn’t a new book; it was published in 2011. But nobody listened to Cassandra in the early days of her career, either.

Carr approaches his book not as much from sociological observation, though that’s part of the book, as is history, but from the science and behavior of the brain.

I recall reading an interesting experiment conducted on fish. Some rapidly reproducing fish were trained to fear an object in the water. Nothing terribly astounding about that – we’ve all heard about Pavlov’s dogs, which were trained to salivate when they heard the sound of a bell, because they had learned that when the bell sounded, they’d get food. Or the chickens that would peck and peck at a key, to the point of exhaustion, trying to get the mechanism they were pecking at give up a food pellet. Many studies examined how long it took to train an animal to perform a certain task for reward, and how long it took to train them to avoid certain behavior for fear of a punishment. Interestingly, these same studies demonstrated it would usually take much longer to “un-train” the behavior (called “extinction”) than to create it to begin with, especially when the reinforcement (the reward or punishment) was intermittent. Just the hope that this time the food pellet would be forthcoming, or “don’t bother, you might get shocked” seemed to last longer than the initial training

What was so fascinating about the fish experiment was that the offspring of the fish also avoided the “scary” object in the water. That is, the learning was passed along to the next generation, even in an animal we deem relatively primitive.

This seems to have something to do with the plasticity of brains, according to Carr’s
information in this book. Our brains come equipped with certain capabilities, and, over time, can adjust to new stimuli, and learn new behavior, and literally become remapped. The brain of a person who loses his sight, for example, will adapt by rewiring portions of the brain that were used for visual stimuli to increase the sensitivity and accuracy of hearing.

He uses the example of language —and more specifically, the written word— to help us understand how plastic our brains truly are. Language, of course, changed everything. While animals certainly have the capacity to exchange information via a series of sounds delivered in a pattern, and by visual cues (think of a dog adopting “play pose,” by lowering itself onto its forepaws, and wagging its tail), humans took these basic forms of information exchange to a whole new level by creating complex sounds that could be patterned abstractly. There wasn’t just one yip for “danger,” but multiple words indicating what type of danger, where it was, how imminent and even more interestingly, what to do about it. In other words, putting into words something that hadn’t happened yet.

He discusses the value of early humans who were able to remember great lists of things: these people became the biological libraries of not just their group, but of the larger human experience. The poets, the bards. When writing was developed, the game changed. At first, writing seemed to be restricted to what we’d call left brain
functions: facts, figures, counting symbols. Stories remained poetry, songs, and more lyrical information. But eventually, though Plato tells us that Socrates felt that poetry and the written word were utterly different, all forms of written language became a part of the human brain’s functioning.

He discusses how written language is even processed differently by the brain
depending upon whether it’s expressed as a phonetic alphabet (like English) or in symbols, like Chinese. The brain will fire in slightly different sections, and react differently as the work it’s required to do varies, even if the purpose of the task is more or less the same.

That is, wrapping back around to the brain’s plasticity – the parts of the brain that change, adapt, to the skill of reading will vary according to the task that’s put before them. When you learn a new skill, you aren’t just “learning” something: you are changing your very self, in a fundamental and biological way. We never doubt that if you discover a hammer, and you learn to use it, and you do use it, often, you will change some
fundamental things: you will prefer using a hammer to pound on things over a stick or a sock; your arm and hand will adapt to the task and perhaps even grow new muscles
specifically suited to the task; you will “see” the hammer’s potential in many objects; and you will be able to pass this information along to others. And, of course, you will keep trying to refine the tool to accomplish ever more specific tasks, so we now have a big heavy mallet and a small, delicate hammer for fine work. (And then there’s that pesky corollary: when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.)

And this, Carr demonstrates with actual studies and evidence, is the pattern of our adaptation to these powerful tools we call “computers,” and the inter-connectedness we call the Internet. It has changed our behavior, certainly, but more importantly, remapped our brains.

By way of a final example, a thing called “time.” Needless to say, “time” has always existed. But we didn’t always measure it, and we certainly lacked the means by which to divide it into units we considered significant. People might pay attention to the turn of the seasons – it would have been hard to miss. And as it grew darker or lighter they would use the light or dark to divide a day into periods of work or sleep, to go hunt or find shelter. Time was soon measured out in lengths by how long a candle would burn, or how long it took the sand to run from one end of an “hour glass” to another. But as the tools for measuring time became more sophisticated, our response to it changed. Now we have a physical sense of its passage; we can be “late,” or “lose track” of it. Having a watch, or a clock, became an important part of functioning in the world. An alarm was a necessity if you weren’t to be “late” for work. A stop watch could determine which worker could perform a chore most quickly, and was therefore a more valuable employee.

Nicholas Carr

Carr warned us years ago —and without, probably, guessing how far down the evolutionary trail we would be by now— that computers, and the Internet, were, even as he wrote, remapping our brains, adjusting our ability to memorize and opening masses of information to our examination that would have gone un-noticed (and un-necessary?) even fifty years ago.

Though, as I noted, this is not a new book (and anything six months old is really old by today’s standards), it remains enlightening.

Nancy Roberts
Writer, voice over artist, information achitect, very curious person.