The debate over technology and books has reached new heights this year. Amazon just announced that e-books have overtaken hardback sales. At the same time, there has been an intensification of debate about the effects of online reading on our brains. At the center of this debate is Nicholas Carr’s, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.
Do your kids still do memory work at school? Have you wondered if memorization matters much now that we can access information online anytime? Carr clearly shows that it does. When we read, information is placed in working memory and requires time before it consolidates in long term memory. The process requires the synthesis of new proteins for anatomical changes in the brain. Complex memories require concerted action across the brain. Any distraction can interrupt this process and the internet is a distraction machine. “When the load exceeds our mind’s ability to store and process the information — when the water overflows the thimble — we’re unable to retain or to draw connections with the information already stored in long-term memory” (125). Human memory is gradient, organic, alive. It gains in richness with each remembering. Only in our heads can we form the complex neural connections linking new information to our previous ones, giving them context and meaning. Biological memory is a completely different thing than computer memory. Offloading our memory to the web only spares us the work of learning, thus preventing a growth of intelligence.
That technology changes our brain is not a new idea. Everything changes our brain. The topic of brain plasticity is also popular this year, following research showing that our brains never stop learning. As Carr observes, it is good news for the brain injured in rehabilitation but it also means that our good mental habits cannot be taken for granted. Neglected pathways get pruned away. MRI studies demonstrate that online readers uses different mental pathways. While book readers are active in areas associated with language, memory and visual processing, online readers are engaging the prefrontal regions associated with decision making and problem solving. The high distractability of the web means online readers must constantly make choices between different reading paths, reverting to being decoders of information, not deep readers. If we don’t use the skills we will lose them. Citing McLuhan, our tools numb the part of the body they amplify, in this case, the brain. Online reading has its virtues but intelligence requires complementary deep reading, best facilitated by reading books.
The call to literacy may not appeal to millennials. In my book, Slow Reading, I touched on my Gen-X experience that Carr calls a two-act play. Our Analogue Youth was a time when memory work was still a required educational practice. I was compelled to repeat a poem again and again to extreme boredom, discovering only then how I was truly becoming the poem, ultimately winning first prize for my recitation in a regional contest. Like the Baby Boomers, we fully share a memory of the time when print was still the dominant information technology. The second act is our Digital Adulthood. Unlike the Boomers, we were mere teenagers when computers went mainstream. Like the millennials we grew up learning digital technology. Gen-X’ers may be uniquely called upon to make the bridge to literacy for millennials.
Any book that starts with McLuhan and ends quoting Heidegger has my interest. The book extends the question Carr asked in his 2008 article, Is Google Making Us Stupid? “Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory.” I share Carr’s feeling. It is palpable, but I have not been able to put my finger on it till now. In The Shallows, Carr nails it. The richness of my memories has diminished, and “I miss my old brain” (16). As books continue to change along with the web, we need the solid research and analysis that Carr provides on literacy and deep reading.