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The Shallows

Book notes for “The Shallows”, What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

Highlights:

And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski. location 142

But the device had a subtler effect on his work. One of Nietzsche’s closest friends, the writer and composer Heinrich Köselitz, noticed a change in the style of his writing. Nietzsche’s prose had become tighter, more telegraphic. There was a new forcefulness to it, too, as though the machine’s power—its “iron”—was, through some mysterious metaphysical mechanism, being transferred into the words it pressed into the page. location 321

The Aplysia experiments revealed, as Kandel reports, “that both views had merit—in fact they complemented each other.” Our genes “specify” many of “the connections among neurons—that is, which neurons form synaptic connections with which other neurons and when.” Those genetically determined connections form Kant’s innate templates, the basic architecture of the brain. But our experiences regulate the strength, or “long-term effectiveness,” of the connections, allowing, as Locke had argued, the ongoing reshaping of the mind and “the expression of new patterns of behavior.” location 478

Pascual-Leone mapped the brain activity of all the participants before, during, and after the test. He found that the people who had only imagined playing the notes exhibited precisely the same changes in their brains as those who had actually pressed the keys.31 Their brains had changed in response to actions that took place purely in their imagination—in response, that is, to their thoughts. location 561

Although neuroplasticity provides an escape from genetic determinism, a loophole for free thought and free will, it also imposes its own form of determinism on our behavior. As particular circuits in our brain strengthen through the repetition of a physical or mental activity, they begin to transform that activity into a habit. The paradox of neuroplasticity, observes Doidge, is that, for all the mental flexibility it grants us, it can end up locking us into “rigid behaviors.”33 The chemically triggered synapses that link our neurons program us, in effect, to want to keep exercising the circuits they’ve formed. location 574

That doesn’t mean that we can’t, with concerted effort, once again redirect our neural signals and rebuild the skills we’ve lost. What it does mean is that the vital paths in our brains become, as Monsieur Dumont understood, the paths of least resistance. They are the paths that most of us will take most of the time, and the farther we proceed down them, the more difficult it becomes to turn back. a location 597

Knowing what we do about London cabbies, we can posit that as people became more dependent on maps, rather than their own memories, in navigating their surroundings, they almost certainly experienced both anatomical and functional changes in the hippocampus and other brain areas involved in spatial modeling and memory. The circuitry devoted to maintaining representations of space likely shrank, while areas employed in deciphering complex and abstract visual information likely expanded or strengthened. We also now know that the changes in the brain spurred by map use could be deployed for other purposes, which helps explain how abstract thinking in general could be promoted by the spread of the cartographer’s craft. location 807

The new codices, like the tablets and scrolls that preceded them, were almost always read aloud, whether the reader was in a group or alone. In a famous passage in his Confessions, Saint Augustine described the surprise he felt when, around the year AD 380, he saw Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, reading silently to himself. “When he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart explored the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still,” wrote Augustine. “Often, when we came to see him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.” Baffled by such peculiar behavior, Augustine wondered whether Ambrose “needed to spare his voice, which quite easily became hoarse.” location 971

To read a long book silently required an ability to concentrate intently over a long period of time, to “lose oneself” in the pages of a book, as we now say. Developing such mental discipline was not easy. 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. Our predisposition is to shift our gaze, and hence our attention, from one object to another, to be aware of as much of what’s going on around us as possible. location 1019

The arguments in books became longer and clearer, as well as more complex and more challenging, as writers strived self-consciously to refine their ideas and their logic. By the end of the fourteenth century, written works were often being divided into paragraphs and chapters, and they sometimes included tables of contents to help guide the reader through their increasingly elaborate structures. location 1061

According to one estimate, the number of books produced in the fifty years following Gutenberg’s invention equaled the number produced by European scribes during the preceding thousand years. location 1120

LIKE OUR FOREBEARS during the later years of the Middle Ages, we find ourselves today between two technological worlds. After 550 years, the printing press and its products are being pushed from the center of our intellectual life to its edges. The shift began during the middle years of the twentieth century, when we started devoting more and more of our time and attention to the cheap, copious, and endlessly entertaining products of the first wave of electric and electronic media: radio, cinema, phonograph, television. location 1241

Overall, the price of a typical computing task has dropped by 99.9 percent since the 1960s.5 Network bandwidth has expanded at an equally fast clip, with Internet traffic doubling, on average, every year since the World Wide Web was invented.6 Computer applications that were unimaginable in Turing’s day are now routine. location 1326

To see how small changes in writers’ assumptions and attitudes can eventually have large effects on what they write, one need only glance at the history of correspondence. A personal letter written in, say, the nineteenth century bears little resemblance to a personal e-mail or text message written today. Our indulgence in the pleasures of informality and immediacy has led to a narrowing of expressiveness and a loss of eloquence.19 location 1715

Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, educators, and Web designers point to the same conclusion: when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. location 1829

Because we’re often using our computers in a social context, to converse with friends or colleagues, to create “profiles” of ourselves, to broadcast our thoughts through blog posts or Facebook updates, our social standing is, in one way or another, always in play, always at risk. The resulting self-consciousness—even, at times, fear—magnifies the intensity of our involvement with the medium. location 1864

The most remarkable part of the experiment came when the tests were repeated six days later. In the interim, the researchers had the novices spend an hour a day online, searching the Net. The new scans revealed that the area in their prefrontal cortex that had been largely dormant now showed extensive activity—just like the activity in the brains of the veteran surfers. “After just five days of practice, the exact same neural circuitry in the front part of the brain became active in the Internet-naïve subjects,” reports Small. “Five hours on the Internet, and the naïve subjects had already rewired their brains.” He goes on to ask, “If our brains are so sensitive to just an hour a day of computer exposure, what happens when we spend more time [online]?” location 1919

The mind of the experienced book reader is a calm mind, not a buzzing one. When it comes to the firing of our neurons, it’s a mistake to assume that more is better. location 1946

Experiments indicate that as we reach the limits of our working memory, it becomes harder to distinguish relevant information from irrelevant information, signal from noise. We become mindless consumers of data. location 1985

She found that comprehension declined as the number of links increased. Readers were forced to devote more and more of their attention and brain power to evaluating the links and deciding whether to click on them. That left less attention and fewer cognitive resources to devote to understanding what they were reading. location 2036

To turn off these alerts is to risk feeling out of touch, or even socially isolated. The near-continuous stream of new information pumped out by the Web also plays to our natural tendency to “vastly overvalue what happens to us right now,” as Union College psychologist Christopher Chabris explains. We crave the new even when we know that “the new is more often trivial than essential.” location 2118

Jordan Grafman, head of the cognitive neuroscience unit at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, explains that the constant shifting of our attention when we’re online may make our brains more nimble when it comes to multitasking, but improving our ability to multitask actually hampers our ability to think deeply and creatively. “Does optimizing for multitasking result in better functioning—that is, creativity, inventiveness, productiveness? The answer is, in more cases than not, no,” says Grafman. “The more you multitask, the less deliberative you become; the less able to think and reason out a problem.” You become, he argues, more likely to rely on conventional ideas and solutions rather than challenging them with original lines of thought. location 2225

Michael Merzenich offers an even bleaker assessment. As we multitask online, he says, we are “training our brains to pay attention to the crap.” The consequences for our intellectual lives may prove “deadly.” location 2254

Patricia Greenfield, the UCLA psychologist, came to a similar conclusion in her Science article on media and intelligence. Noting that the rise in IQ scores “is concentrated in nonverbal IQ performance,” which is “mainly tested through visual tests,” she attributed the Flynn effect to an array of factors, from urbanization to the growth in “societal complexity,” all of which “are part and parcel of the worldwide movement from smaller-scale, low-tech communities with subsistence economies toward large-scale, high-tech societies with commercial economies.”10 We’re not smarter than our parents or our parents’ parents. We’re just smart in different ways. location 2329

It was once understood that the most effective filter of human thought is time. “The best rule of reading will be a method from nature, and not a mechanical one,” wrote Emerson in his 1858 essay “Books.” All writers must submit “their performance to the wise ear of Time, who sits and weighs, and ten years hence out of a million of pages reprints one. Again, it is judged, it is winnowed by all the winds of opinion, and what terrific selection has not passed on it, before it can be reprinted after twenty years, and reprinted after a century!” location 2694

“Human beings are ashamed to have been born instead of made,” the twentieth-century philosopher Günther Anders once observed, and in the pronouncements of Google’s founders we can sense that shame as well as the ambition it engenders.58 In Google’s world, which is the world we enter when we go online, there’s little place for the pensive stillness of deep reading or the fuzzy indirection of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed. The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive—and better algorithms to steer the course of its thought. location 2738

Erasmus’s advice echoed that of the Roman Seneca, who also used a botanical metaphor to describe the essential role that memory plays in reading and in thinking. “We should imitate bees,” Seneca wrote, “and we should keep in separate compartments whatever we have collected from our diverse reading, for things conserved separately keep better. Then, diligently applying all the resources of our native talent, we should mingle all the various nectars we have tasted, and then turn them into a single sweet substance, in such a way that, even if it is apparent where it originated, it appears quite different from what it was in its original state.” location 2825

Through the new round of Aplysia experiments, Kandel wrote in his 2006 memoir In Search of Memory, “we could see for the first time that the number of synapses in the brain is not fixed—it changes with learning! Moreover, long-term memory persists for as long as the anatomical changes are maintained.” The research also revealed the basic physiological difference between the two types of memory: “Short-term memory produces a change in the function of the synapse, strengthening or weakening preexisting connections; long-term memory requires anatomical changes.” location 2925

Henry Molaison. Born in 1926, Molaison was stricken with epilepsy after suffering a severe head injury in his youth. During his adult years, he experienced increasingly debilitating grand mal seizures. The source of his affliction was eventually traced to the area of his hippocampus, and in 1953 doctors removed most of the hippocampus as well as other parts of the medial temporal lobes. The surgery cured Molaison’s epilepsy, but it had an extraordinarily strange effect on his memory. His implicit memories remained intact, as did his older explicit memories. He could remember the events of his childhood in great detail. But many of his more recent explicit memories—some dating back years before the surgery—had vanished. And he was no longer able to store new explicit memories. Events slipped from his mind moments after they happened. Molaison’s experience, meticulously documented by the English psychologist Brenda Milner, suggested that the hippocampus is essential to the consolidation of new explicit memories but that after a time many of those memories come to exist independently of the hippocampus.24 Extensive experiments over the last five decades have helped untangle this conundrum. The memory of an experience seems to be stored initially not only in the cortical regions that record the experience—the auditory cortex for a memory of a sound, the visual cortex for a memory of a sight, and so forth—but also in the hippocampus. The hippocampus provides an ideal holding place for new memories because its synapses are able to change very quickly. Over the course of a few days, through a still mysterious signaling process, the hippocampus helps stabilize the memory in the cortex, beginning its transformation from a short-term memory into a long-term one. Eventually, once the memory is fully consolidated, it appears to be erased from the hippocampus. The cortex becomes its sole holding place. Fully transferring an explicit memory from the hippocampus to the cortex is a gradual process that can take many years.25 That’s why so many of Molaison’s memories disappeared along with his hippocampus. location 2977

WHEN A CARPENTER picks up a hammer, the hammer becomes, so far as his brain is concerned, part of his hand. When a soldier raises a pair of binoculars to his face, his brain sees through a new set of eyes, adapting instantaneously to a very different field of view. The experiments on pliers-wielding monkeys revealed how readily the plastic primate brain can incorporate tools into its sensory maps, making the artificial feel natural. In the human brain, that capacity has advanced far beyond what’s seen in even our closest primate cousins. Our ability to meld with all manner of tools is one of the qualities that most distinguishes us as a species. In combination with our superior cognitive skills, it’s what makes us so good at using new technologies. It’s also what makes us so good at inventing them. Our brains can imagine the mechanics and the benefits of using a new device before that device even exists. The evolution of our extraordinary mental capacity to blur the boundary between the internal and the external, the body and the instrument, was, says University of Oregon neuroscientist Scott Frey, “no doubt a fundamental step in the development of technology.” location 3268

our tools end up “numbing” whatever part of our body they “amplify.”20 When we extend some part of ourselves artificially, we also distance ourselves from the amplified part and its natural functions. When the power loom was invented, weavers could manufacture far more cloth during the course of a workday than they’d been able to make by hand, but they sacrificed some of their manual dexterity, not to mention some of their “feel” for fabric. Their fingers, in McLuhan’s terms, became numb. Farmers, similarly, lost some of their feel for the soil when they began using mechanical harrows and plows. Today’s industrial farm worker, sitting in his air-conditioned cage atop a gargantuan tractor, rarely touches the soil at all—though in a single day he can till a field that his hoe-wielding forebear could not have turned in a month. When we’re behind the wheel of our car, we can go a far greater distance than we could cover on foot, but we lose the walker’s intimate connection to the land. location 3294

the conception of the world that emerged from time-keeping instruments “was and remains an impoverished version of the older one, for it rests on a rejection of those direct experiences that formed the basis for, and indeed constituted, the old reality.”22 In deciding when to eat, to work, to sleep, to wake up, we stopped listening to our senses and started obeying the clock. We became a lot more scientific, but we became a bit more mechanical as well. location 3316

The subjects using the bare-bones software consistently demonstrated “more focus, more direct and economical solutions, better strategies, and better imprinting of knowledge.” The more that people depended on explicit guidance from software programs, the less engaged they were in the task and the less they ended up learning. The findings indicate, van Nimwegen concluded, that as we “externalize” problem solving and other cognitive chores to our computers, we reduce our brain’s ability “to build stable knowledge structures”—schemas, in other words—that can later “be applied in new situations.” location 3388