Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. Are the Brain Imaging or Readers Right?

Tags: Book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brain, Nicholas Carr, Google Making Us Stupid, Learning How to Think, Review, Jonas Lehrer, attention span short,

Nicholas Carr, formerly a book editor for a large publishing house, has noticed that since he started writing columns on the Internet, he has lost his ability to concentrate very long when reading a book.

On a PBS program on the very brightest students at MIT, one common problem expressed by these students is that the complain that they can no longer sit and write a whole essay and need to take a break every ten or fifteen minutes. Sure they do well on IQ tests and other quick thinking tasks and doing tasks such as video games which I doubt has anything to do with deep thinking.

Ever since Nicholas Carr wrote an article in The Atlantic Magazine titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?, he has been attacked by the brain imaging professors who rely heavily on their questionable research equating brain activity in certain parts of the brain to explain how we think and various psychosis brain diseases. I am not convinced. Brain imaging is very expensive to do and because of the toxicity of the contrast agent which does destroy the kidneys at varying speeds, repeated followup studies are rarely done on many patients.

Look for contradictions in Jonas Lehrer's damning review. If you find these excerpts interesting, use the hyperlink to read the whole article and perhaps Carr's and Lehrer's books.

Jim Kawakami, June 06, 2010,

Nicholas Carr’s new book, “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,” is reviewed in this Sunday’s book review.

What have you been reading or recommending lately?

I’m currently making my third attempt to read David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” all the way through, and this time I plan to succeed. I quote, in “The Shallows,” some advice that Wallace gave to college students a couple of years before he died. “Learning how to think,” he said, “means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.” Those words strike me as being worthy of contemplation.

What will this Web Q. and A. do to readers’ brains?

Not much, unless I say something remarkably memorable. What changes our brains is, on the one hand, repetition and, on the other hand, neglect. That’s why I believe the Net is having such far-reaching intellectual consequences.

When we’re online, we tend to perform the same physical and mental actions over and over again, at a high rate of speed and in a state of perpetual distractedness. The more we go through those motions, the more we train ourselves to be skimmers and scanners and surfers.

But the Net provides no opportunity or encouragement for more placid, attentive thought. What we’re losing, through neglect, is our capacity for contemplation, introspection, reflection — all those ways of thinking that require attentiveness and deep concentration.

What role does the Internet play in your writing life?

It plays a very beneficial role in helping me to do research efficiently, to find, very quickly and with a minimum of effort, relevant books, articles, and facts. At the same time, it plays a very damaging role in constantly disrupting my train of thought and leading me down endless rabbit holes. Robert Frost had a lover’s quarrel with the world. I’m having a lover’s quarrel with the Net. …

Our Cluttered Mind, NY Times May 27, 2010, Jonah Lehrer, author of “How We Decide,” likely a brain imaging researcher.

… In “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,” the technology writer Nicholas Carr extends this anxiety to the 21st century. The book begins with a melodramatic flourish, as Carr recounts the pleas of the supercomputer HAL in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The machine is being dismantled, its wires unplugged: “My mind is going,” HAL says. “I can feel it.” ...

This doesn’t mean that the rise of the Internet won’t lead to loss of important mental talents; every technology comes with trade-offs. Look, for instance, at literacy itself: when children learn to decode letters, they usurp large chunks of the visual cortex previously devoted to object recognition. The end result is that literate humans are less able to “read” the details of the natural world. ...

For Carr, the analogy is obvious: The modern mind is like the fictional computer. “I can feel it too,” he writes. “Over the last 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.” While HAL was silenced by its human users, Carr argues that we are sabotaging ourselves, trading away the seriousness of sustained attention for the frantic superficiality of the Internet.

As Carr first observed in his much discussed 2008 article in The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” the mere existence of the online world has made it much harder (at least for him) to engage with difficult texts and complex ideas. “Once I was a scuba diver in a sea of words,” Carr writes, with typical eloquence. “Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” …

Nevertheless, Carr insists that the negative side effects of the Internet outweigh its efficiencies. Consider, for instance, the search engine, which Carr believes has fragmented our knowledge. “We don’t see the forest when we search the Web,” he writes. “We don’t even see the trees. We see twigs and leaves.” One of Carr’s most convincing pieces of evidence comes from a 2008 study that reviewed 34 million academic articles published between 1945 and 2005. While the digitization of journals made it far easier to find this information, it also coincided with a narrowing of citations, with scholars citing fewer previous articles and focusing more heavily on recent publications. Why is it that in a world in which everything is available we all end up reading the same thing?

But wait: it gets worse. Carr’s most serious charge against the Internet has nothing to do with Google and its endless sprawl of hyperlinks. Instead, he’s horrified by the way computers are destroying our powers of concentration. As the blogger Cory Doctorow, a co-editor of the wildly popular Web site Boing Boing, has observed, the typical electronic screen is an “ecosystem of interruption technologies,” encouraging us to peek at our e-mail in-box, glance at Twitter and waste away the day on eBay.

And so we lurch from site to site, if only because we constantly crave the fleeting pleasure of new information. But this isn’t really the fault of the Internet. The online world has merely exposed the feebleness of human attention, which is so weak that even the most minor temptations are all but impossible to resist.

Carr’s argument also breaks down when it comes to idle Web surfing. A 2009 study by neuroscientists at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that performing Google searches led to increased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, at least when compared with reading a “book-like text.” Interestingly, this brain area underlies the precise talents, like selective attention and deliberate analysis, that Carr says have vanished in the age of the Internet. Google, in other words, isn’t making us stupid — it’s exercising the very mental muscles that make us smarter. ...

It is here that he starts to run into problems. There is little doubt that the Internet is changing our brain. Everything changes our brain. What Carr neglects to mention, however, is that the preponderance of scientific evidence suggests that the Internet and related technologies are actually good for the mind.

For instance, a comprehensive 2009 review of studies published on the cognitive effects of video games found that gaming led to significant improvements in performance on various cognitive tasks, from visual perception to sustained attention. (10 minutes? Jim) This surprising result led the scientists to propose that even simple computer games like Tetris can lead to “marked increases in the speed of information processing.” One particularly influential study, published in Nature in 2003, demonstrated that after just 10 days of playing Medal of Honor, a violent first-person shooter game, subjects showed dramatic increases in ­visual attention and memory. …

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