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The Shallows - a Summary of the Book About the Internet's Effect on the Mind

For the Silicon Valley Reads program in the South Bay Area, one of the highlighted books is The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. I was excited to read the book as I have long suspected that depending on the Internet and other technologies has certainly affected the way I think and act personally, and was interested in any background information and relevant data on this topic. While I found the book to be chock-full of insightful bits of information, reading through the book went slowly for me (and I really pushed myself because, after all, the whole book focused on how today’s society doesn’t really like reading books as much anymore). There was a lot of great history and background throughout, but I found myself at times wondering if it was all really necessary, even though I knew it all related to the book's main points. Therefore, I wanted to share what I considered to be the most interesting pieces of information that may relate to you or those you know.

"network neurons 1" by gerard 79 via stock.xchng

"network neurons 1" by gerard 79 via stock.xchng

Plasticity of the Mind

One of the key concepts that Carr focuses on in the book is “plasticity” of the brain, meaning the ability of the brain to be altered and molded as a result of the activities that we do – and don’t – use it for. For instance, the brains of taxi drivers are different when some drivers depend on GPS systems and other technologies to find where they need to go, and others simply use their brains and memory to remember where to drive customers.

One thing I really use is Google Maps and the map feature on my phone. Once I’ve visited a place, I make the conscious effort to try to remember on my own how to get back, but I basically depend on technology to find somewhere new, and I couldn’t imagine what it was like before these map and navigation applications.

Another thing I found interesting that I hadn’t heard of before was that of the “phantom limb”, where someone who loses an arm or leg may think that when a certain part of their face is being tapped, they think it is that body part that was lost that is being tapped because the nerves have re-routed themselves to another part of the body since the arm or leg is no longer there.

The plasticity of the brain is amazing, and using a computer or the Internet truly has an effect on brain activity. After five hours on a computer, the novice users shows the same changes in brain activity as experienced users, particularly in the prefrontal cortex. Interestingly, while book readers show less activity in the prefrontal regions associated with decisionmaking and problem-solving, Internet users show more extensive activity in those areas. There is also the benefit of exercising the brain, especially for older users. In addition, using the Internet and computers has been shown to increase skills such as hand-eye coordination and reflexes.

"Busy Woman" by jetmedia via stock.xchng

"Busy Woman" by jetmedia via stock.xchng

Influences on Speech, Reading and Writing

Socrates and Thamus both believed that writing alters the mind and resulted in people losing the ability to remember and learn, as opposed to speech and the “oral tradition”. Speech and oral tradition were very significant parts of the culture at that time and to a point, writing was looked upon negatively by some.

Carr makes the delineation between reading, decoding text, and linear thinking and being able to focus on one task at a time, versus our natural survival instincts of always being alert, keeping an eye out for possible threats, basically multitasking.

Carr does recognize that hugely influential works like Darwin’s theory of evolution and Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” wouldn’t have been possible without the ability of our brains to focus on long forms of writing. At the same time, he also notes how some feel that long works of writing like “War and Peace” are unnecessarily long and wordy – even 2008 Rhodes Scholar Joe O’Shea said he doesn’t read books and doesn’t think he needs to do so. There are alternatives to reading long texts now, such as online summaries and CliffNotes.

It’s absolutely no secret that the use of technology has skyrocketed, in my opinion ridiculously. Adult Internet users are online an average of 17 hours a week as of 2009, and American kids between 2 and 11 years old are on 11 hours a week. The Chinese are online 44% of the time outside of work. This doesn’t include time on our cell phones – in 2009, Americans sent or received an average of 400 texts a month, or 4 times the amount in 2006, and for teens, the number was around 2,272 a month. Also, time online doesn’t decrease TV time, as there tends to be a positive correlation between TV viewing and web surfing; Americans spend at least 8.5 hours a day either watching TV, going on the computer, or using their cell phone.

What that does seem to result in is less time reading print publications, which in 2008 had fallen 11% to 143 minutes a week since four years prior for the average American. This resulted in huge consequences for print newspapers, where the owners of papers such as the LA Times and the Chicago Tribune have filed for bankruptcy.

Technology has had considerable impacts on books, writing and reading, where generally the results usually include shorter, more concise bits of information, and many other supplemental pieces of info. Examples include “cell phone” books, which have sprung up in Japan and are written one text at a time; the writer texts one or two lines to themselves as they come to them and compile them all into one novel, and while they are very popular and sometime easier to read, they usually lack in character or plot development. There are also “vooks”, which are eBooks with video embedded in them that can enhance the book but also distract the reader and make it more difficult to remember or understand the meaning of the original text.

The amount of information available online is vast and endless, but certainly not always provided strictly for purposes such as public information and empowerment. Google makes information free and accessible so that people will spend more time on the computer and therefore looking at more ads.

How These Concepts Relate to HubPages

I’ve noticed over the several years I have been a HubPages author that the number of modules and features available on the pages has really increased. In the beginning, it was mostly about writing 500 or so words of text, adding photos and video, comments and links, and of course advertisements. Now there are features like recipe modules for ingredients or ratings, a Related Hubs section, thumbs-up or –down feedback, polls, maps, quizzes, and more. Some I think are neat and I may include them just because I can, like the map for a Hub about a specific city. But even before I read The Shallows, I thought a lot of the features were a little overkill and I wouldn’t include them in the Hub because I thought it would take away from the point of the Hub. HubPages is following the trend of “more is better”, which is probably better for them, but I am a simple girl who needs all the focus she can get.

"Red Lady" by alicja_sto via stock.xchng

"Red Lady" by alicja_sto via stock.xchng

Impacts on Brain Activity

There is some debate as to whether technology has helped make us smarter or not, and one of the measures that has been used to prove the former has been rising IQ scores. While IQ scores have increased 3 points every decade since before World War II, scores on other tests have fallen, such as the SAT reading test scores, which have suffered decreases from 1992 to 2005. Basically, we’re “smarter” in different ways than generations before.

Generally, using the Internet or other forms of technology to read information impedes overall comprehension and retention, and results in more shallow mental connections between information, if any. Research has shown that links and other outlets for information can make the initial, base information confusing or difficult to remember.

Also interesting is that our working memory, which holds the items in our immediate attention before filing them away into long-term, can only hold 2-4 items at one time. Reading books or focusing on other tasks one at a time helps increase the chances of information remaining in memory since the flow of information is less, whereas increasing the flow by adding so many other points of information – i.e. pop-ups, links – makes it more difficult to distinguish, process or channel the flow of information into memory.

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One example is CNN’s television broadcast display, with multiple new stories, a scrollbar on the bottom, and other graphics and images simultaneously. It can be difficult the grasp the information in the base story with so much else vying for your attention.

Another interesting study showed that the more words on a page, the less time a person will spend reading the text, which means that we truly “browse” the web rather than actively read the text.

Improving our ability to multitask impedes our levels of creativity, since we are so concerned with trying to absorb as much information as possible that we are left with less time and energy to use that information to our benefit.
Memory stored in a computer never changes, while that which is stored in our brains changes and processes with time and experience. Carr lamented that the more technological processes become, the more that creativity and humanity are lost along the way. Carr mentioned that when we walk, we are making a connection to the land and the earth, and have the opportunity to take in our surroundings and make memories. Now, not only are there cars, planes and even bullet trains to lessen that connection, but now there may even be self-driving vehicles! I love my commute to work, though it is long, because I love the alone time away from my phone and computer, and I love seeing the mountains and cattle on the pastoral green hillsides. It really makes me sad that with the introduction of self-driving vehicles, the experience could all disappear. In a couple generations, people may not even know what they are missing. I feel fortunate that I at least grew up in a time when my family did not have cell phones or computers until I was older, and I was raised to understand the importance of personal connection, so that even when these technologies are introduced to society today, I can judge for myself whether it is beneficial or not for me to use it, versus feeling that it is necessary to keep upgrading my machines.

In addition, studies have shown that the brain requires more time to process information about other’s suffering and trials when we are not physically experiencing them ourselves, and so when less time is dedicated to reading or viewing about such events, we lose that much more connection to others as well.

Carr acknowledged that perhaps all of this is just a matter of creating new habits and adjusting to a new world of technologies. Some may opt to read this Hub rather than read the book because it’s shorter and possibly easier to digest, which may be better than not taking in any of Carr’s helpful and interesting information at all.

Overall, The Shallows confirms what everyone is realizing: there is such a thing as too much technology. While there can be great added convenience, there is also the risk of losing our creativity, our personality, and our ability to think for ourselves. The question that we now may ponder is the balance that we want to strike between the two. I feel pretty comfortable where I am; I love having my cell phone to check e-mails and use Bing Maps, but I can survive just fine without it for a week or two on vacation. I’m not afraid to make a call or a personal visit as opposed to sending a text or e-mail if it makes a difference. Even if it means that I am less “successful” at work, I will continue to try to separate myself from too much technology because I think it results in better relationships with my family and friends, and in a better me.

The Shallows ended on an inspiring note: that this may be the point before a rebellion against technology. While youth are often pointed out as exorbitant Internet and technology users, Carr notes that adults tend to be the true abusers, and youth historically have been the generation to lead rebellions, as with the Vietnam draft. Maybe we are not hurtling toward an oblivion devoid of morality and humanity after all!


Raine Law Yuen from Cape Town on April 05, 2015:

Interesting Hub. Technology has certainly changed the way we connect. I think its like everything else. Do in moderation. Love the idea that I can instantly be connected to people around the world but I think social media an be a bit of an overkill. My children use tablets at school now - so its changed the way they learn too. I guess we are evolving where time and space no longer tie us down.

mylindaelliott from Louisiana on March 13, 2014:

I noticed that my younger children don't spell as well as my older children. Once I thought about it, it occurred to me it was because of the way the younger ones text. They don't spell things out. After a while they believe they are spelling correctly when they aren't.

Judy Specht from California on March 12, 2014:

Thanks for the information. The last couple of nights I haven't slept well. Usually I recite things memorized in the past when I can't sleep. It seems like I can't remember so well anymore. All my hours on the net causing me to think in the shallow could be the reason.

Genna East from Massachusetts, USA on March 12, 2014:

This is a fascinating hub. I think the use of technology has increased impatience, as well as attention deficits. I have noticed news articles on the Internet are often written in bullet-like one sentence paragraphs, and are woefully incomplete or inaccurate. Cable news and network news outlets have squeezed the news into 30-second sound bites, as if the viewer can’t hold more than these small bits of information at a time. (I long for broadcasts with more substance, and cause the viewer to ask questions, to think, and to use quantitative analysis, which seems to be a dying art.) I will definitely pick up this book! Voted up, more and sharing.

FlourishAnyway from USA on March 06, 2014:

It's interesting that for all the time we may spend on-line, reading on a screen slows us down considerably (by as much as 30%). At some point you do have to wonder about the efficiency/access tradeoff. Very interesting review. I had not heard of this book but will definitely be checking it out.

glassvisage (author) from Northern California on March 06, 2014:

That's an interesting tidbit and it doesn't surprise me. The way I see the directors at my office work is totally different than the way I'm used to functioning. I hardly even carry around my cell phone at work and I feel like a CEO couldn't make it through the day without it, let alone reading a document.

Virginia Kearney from United States on March 06, 2014:

Thanks for this review of Carr's book. My students read and often write about an essay taken from his book that is in our College English Textbook. Several of them focused their recent research paper around this issue. Another take on this is John Seely Brown's Growing Up Digital which suggests that actually the type of reading that modern people are doing requires a kind of multi-tasking which is comparative to that done by a CEO.

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