Cognitive Consequences: A Conversation with Nicholas Carr

In 2008, writer Nicholas Carr pub­lished an essay in The Atlantic with the provoca­tive head­line, “Is Google Mak­ing Us Stu­pid?” Carr’s the­sis was that the Inter­net, for all its imme­di­ate and obvi­ous ben­e­fits, was also doing us some harm. It was rob­bing us of our abil­i­ty to read deeply and con­cen­trate on long texts.

“Immers­ing myself in a book or a lengthy arti­cle used to be easy,” Carr wrote. “My mind would get caught up in the nar­ra­tive or the turns of the argu­ment, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretch­es of prose. That’s rarely the case any­more. Now my con­cen­tra­tion often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fid­gety, lose the thread, begin look­ing for some­thing else to do.” The habits acquired read­ing hyper­text – skim­ming and skip­ping rapid­ly from one item to the next – stayed with Carr even when he was away from his com­put­er. “Once I was a scu­ba div­er in a sea of words,” he wrote. “Now I zip along the sur­face like a guy on a Jet Ski.”

Carr found that many peo­ple he knew — “lit­er­ary types, most of them” — were notic­ing the same thing. Fre­quent use of the Net seemed to weak­en one’s capac­i­ty for read­ing long, ful­ly devel­oped texts. Carr began to wor­ry about the con­se­quences. If we lose our abil­i­ty to read deeply, might we also lose our abil­i­ty to think deeply?

Two years lat­er Carr is back with a book, The Shal­lows: What the Inter­net is Doing to Our Brains, which explores that ques­tion in depth. To under­stand what is going on, he writes, we have to look beyond the con­tent. “Media work their mag­ic, or their mis­chief, on the ner­vous sys­tem itself,” Carr writes. “Our focus on a medium’s con­tent can blind us to these deep effects. We’re too busy being daz­zled or dis­turbed by the pro­gram­ming to notice what’s going on inside our heads.”

In The Shal­lows, Carr describes numer­ous sci­en­tif­ic stud­ies that lend sup­port to his claim that Web surf­ing has adverse cog­ni­tive con­se­quences. For exam­ple, research has shown that read­ers of hyper­text have more dif­fi­cul­ty under­stand­ing and remem­ber­ing what they have read than read­ers of tra­di­tion­al, “lin­ear” text. In mul­ti­ple stud­ies, the dis­trac­tion of hyper­links was shown to hin­der com­pre­hen­sion.

Oth­er stud­ies have tracked the move­ment of read­ers’ eyes and revealed that Web read­ers typ­i­cal­ly do not read line-by-line, the way they would if they were read­ing a print­ed text. Instead, their eyes trace out a pat­tern resem­bling the let­ter F. The eyes typ­i­cal­ly begin by fol­low­ing a few lines all the way across, then skim part-way across a few more lines before drift­ing down­ward along the left-hand side of the text. Jakob Nielsen, a Dan­ish Web usabil­i­ty expert who con­duct­ed some of the ear­ly eye-track­ing stud­ies, puts it suc­cinct­ly: “How do users read on the web? They don’t.”

The pat­terns of thought that go along with read­ing habits such as these – super­fi­cial, scat­tered, per­pet­u­al­ly dis­tract­ed – can have seri­ous con­se­quences even when we’re not online, argues Carr. He cites recent brain research show­ing that neur­al con­nec­tions are sig­nif­i­cant­ly refig­ured, or “re-mapped,” as a con­se­quence of men­tal expe­ri­ence – espe­cial­ly repet­i­tive expe­ri­ence. Carr quotes a blog entry writ­ten by neu­ro­sci­en­tist Michael Merzenich: “When cul­ture dri­ves changes in the ways that we engage our brains, it cre­ates DIFFERENT brains.”

The Shal­lows, like Carr’s ear­li­er mag­a­zine arti­cle, has sparked con­sid­er­able pub­lic debate – much of it polar­ized. As the book came out last week, The New York Times began a series, “Your Brain on Com­put­ers,” exam­in­ing some of the issues raised by Carr. On Fri­day, Har­vard psy­chol­o­gist and cog­ni­tive sci­en­tist Steven Pinker entered the fray. “Expe­ri­ence does not revamp the basic infor­ma­tion-pro­cess­ing capac­i­ties of the brain,” Pinker wrote in the Times. “Far from mak­ing us stu­pid, these tech­nolo­gies are the only things that will keep us smart.”

Carr issued a response, argu­ing that Pinker was “too quick to dis­miss people’s con­cerns over the Internet’s influ­ence on their intel­lec­tu­al lives.” He quot­ed the work of anoth­er psy­chol­o­gist: “As Patri­cia Green­field, the UCLA devel­op­men­tal psy­chol­o­gist, wrote in a Sci­ence arti­cle last year, research sug­gests that our grow­ing use of screen-based media is weak­en­ing our ‘high­er-order cog­ni­tive process­es,’ includ­ing ‘abstract vocab­u­lary, mind­ful­ness, reflec­tion, induc­tive prob­lem solv­ing, crit­i­cal think­ing, and imag­i­na­tion.’”

Wher­ev­er one stands in the debate, Carr has chal­lenged us to do pre­cise­ly what he says is becom­ing more dif­fi­cult to do: pause, reflect, and med­i­tate on the mat­ter. We spoke with Carr by email.

Open Cul­ture: When did you first begin to sus­pect that the Inter­net was chang­ing the way you think?

Nicholas Carr: It was some­time dur­ing 2007. I had been using the Net, with increas­ing inten­si­ty, for more than a decade, and it began to dawn on me that there might be a con­nec­tion between all the time I spend click­ing links and exchang­ing emails and the ero­sion of my abil­i­ty to con­cen­trate. When I sat down to read a book, or just to think, I found it hard to main­tain my focus – my mind want­ed to keep click­ing and surf­ing.

Open Cul­ture: There is some­thing addic­tive – almost like slot machines – about surf­ing the Web, isn’t there?

Nicholas Carr: I’m not sure whether it ris­es to the lev­el of addic­tion, but the web cer­tain­ly tends to inspire com­pul­sive behav­ior. There are a few rea­sons for that, but one of the big ones is that human beings crave new infor­ma­tion. So if we’re giv­en the oppor­tu­ni­ty to get a new bit of infor­ma­tion – and it doesn’t much mat­ter whether it’s triv­ial or impor­tant – we’ll go for it. Since on the Web new infor­ma­tion is always just a click away, it becomes hard to break free of the flow. We keep click­ing, keep check­ing email, keep Googling, and so on. That desire for new stuff is ampli­fied by the fact that a lot of the infor­ma­tion flow­ing through our com­put­ers or our cell phones these days has a social com­po­nent – it takes the form of mes­sages or updates from peo­ple we know. If we dis­con­nect, we can feel like we’re miss­ing out on the con­ver­sa­tion, and because we’re social beings that feel­ing can be unen­durable.

Open Cul­ture: Your essay in The Atlantic caused quite a stir. There’s even a long Wikipedia page on it, which is unusu­al for a mag­a­zine arti­cle. Were you sur­prised by the reac­tion?

Nicholas Carr: The Wikipedia arti­cle is quite good, I think. But, yes, I was sur­prised. I had seen the arti­cle as a rather mod­est per­son­al essay, but it clear­ly struck a chord. I received notes from scores of peo­ple say­ing that they were hav­ing sim­i­lar expe­ri­ences to my own and were very con­cerned about the Net’s influ­ence. Of course, I also received quite a few mes­sages say­ing I was full of baloney.

Open Cul­ture: It’s been almost two years since the arti­cle appeared. Since then, what have you learned about how the Inter­net is affect­ing our brains?

Nicholas Carr: The reac­tion to the piece led me to look beyond the per­son­al anec­do­tal, to see what sci­ence and his­to­ry might tell us about the cog­ni­tive and cul­tur­al effects of a pop­u­lar medi­um like the Inter­net. A lot of what I dis­cov­ered was dis­turb­ing. Many stud­ies sug­gest that the Net, and screen-based tech­nolo­gies in gen­er­al, encour­ages a dis­tract­ed way of think­ing that impedes com­pre­hen­sion and learn­ing, even as it gives us access to a huge amount of valu­able infor­ma­tion. What I also found is that, to under­stand the Net’s influ­ence, you real­ly have to look at it in the con­text of technology’s effects on the intel­lec­tu­al his­to­ry of humankind, going all the way back to the devel­op­ment of maps and devices for time­keep­ing. It’s a fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ry.

Open Cul­ture: Your new book, The Shal­lows, seems to have sparked more dis­cus­sion. Last week The New York Times pub­lished a series of sto­ries, with head­lines like “Hooked on Gad­gets, and Pay­ing a Men­tal Price,” “An Ugly Toll of Tech­nol­o­gy – Impa­tience and For­get­ful­ness,” and “More Amer­i­cans Sense a Down­side to an Always Plugged-In Exis­tence.” Those head­lines could have come straight from your book. Do you think peo­ple are becom­ing more ready to lis­ten to your argu­ment?

Nicholas Carr: I think they are. The Web is now about 20 years old. Up until recent­ly, we’ve been daz­zled by its rich­es and con­ve­niences – for good rea­son. Now, though, I think we’re becom­ing more aware of the costs that go along with the ben­e­fits, of what we lose when we spend so much time star­ing into screens. I sense that peo­ple, or at least some peo­ple, are begin­ning to sense the lim­its of online life. They’re crav­ing to be more in con­trol of their atten­tion and their time.

Open Cul­ture: In the book you quote Mar­shall McLuhan, who famous­ly wrote that the “medi­um is the mes­sage.” and that the con­tent served up by a medi­um is mere­ly “the juicy piece of meat car­ried by the bur­glar to dis­tract the watch­dog of the mind.” How does this relate to what’s hap­pen­ing with the web?

Nicholas Carr: It’s nat­ur­al that, when a new medi­um comes along, we focus on the con­tent it pro­vides us – the shows on the TV and radio, the sto­ries in news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines – and don’t pay much heed to its deep­er effects on cog­ni­tion and cul­ture. Pop­u­lar media tend to be very good at seduc­ing “the watch­dog of the mind,” as McLuhan put it. McLuhan’s intent was to get the watch­dog to pay atten­tion to what the bur­glar was steal­ing. That’s pret­ty much my intent, too.

Open Cul­ture: What is the bur­glar steal­ing, and how?

Nicholas Carr: Our more atten­tive, soli­tary modes of think­ing – con­tem­pla­tion, reflec­tion, intro­spec­tion, and the like. We’re train­ing our brains to be more adept at skim­ming and scan­ning and surf­ing – and those are cer­tain­ly valu­able ways of think­ing – but we’re neglect­ing our qui­eter modes of thought. And when you don’t exer­cise a habit of mind, you slow­ly begin to lose it.

Open Cul­ture: In the book you write about “neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty.” What is that?

Nicholas Carr: It used to be assumed that the struc­ture of the human brain was fixed by the end of child­hood. But what we’ve learned over the last 40 years is that even the adult human brain is con­stant­ly chang­ing, at a cel­lu­lar lev­el, to adapt to changes in cir­cum­stances and expe­ri­ences. We can assume, there­fore, that the changes in our habits of thought pro­duced by the Net and relat­ed media are also pro­duc­ing actu­al bio­log­i­cal changes in our brain. I argue that that’s like­ly one of the rea­sons why our dis­tract­ed, ner­vous, skim­ming forms of think­ing stay with us even when we turn off our com­put­ers.

Open Cul­ture: In a recent inter­view in The Atlantic, you said, “There seems to be a rede­f­i­n­i­tion of our idea of intel­li­gence.” What did you mean by that?

Nicholas Carr: We used to think of the gath­er­ing of infor­ma­tion as only the first stage of think­ing. The sec­ond and more impor­tant stage was think­ing deeply about the infor­ma­tion we gath­ered, con­nect­ing it to the oth­er infor­ma­tion stored in our heads in order to build per­son­al knowl­edge and even wis­dom. Now, I sense that we’re increas­ing­ly defin­ing intel­li­gence as mere­ly the act of gath­er­ing – as a mat­ter of “access­ing” as much infor­ma­tion as pos­si­ble. We’re begin­ning to lose sight of the deep think­ing stage, which requires con­cen­tra­tion, qui­et, and a degree of soli­tude.

Open Cul­ture: Some peo­ple have sug­gest­ed we’re mov­ing inex­orably toward a kind of glob­al intel­li­gence, or “hive mind,” in which indi­vid­ual human minds are the work­er bees. Giv­en the ben­e­fits of col­lec­tiviza­tion, would that be a bad thing? Per­haps our indi­vid­ual minds are being re-wired for a greater col­lec­tive intel­li­gence.

Nicholas Carr: What’s inter­est­ing about our minds, I believe, is what’s least bee-like about them. I’m not sure what “col­lec­tive intel­li­gence” means, but if I were to define it I’d say it’s syn­ony­mous with “cul­ture.” And cul­ture emanates from many indi­vid­ual minds, work­ing alone or in con­cert.

Open Cul­ture: Speak­ing of cul­ture, some of your crit­ics have sug­gest­ed that behind your argu­ment lies a nos­tal­gia for the days when the lit­er­ary intel­li­gentsia were the cul­tur­al elite. In response to your Atlantic essay, Clary Shirky wrote, “Hav­ing lost its actu­al cen­tral­i­ty some time ago, the lit­er­ary world is now los­ing its nor­ma­tive hold on cul­ture as well. The threat isn’t that peo­ple will stop read­ing War and Peace. That day is long since past. The threat is that peo­ple will stop gen­u­flect­ing to the idea of read­ing War and Peace.” How do you respond to that?

Nicholas Carr: I would be lying if I didn’t con­fess to being sad­dened by the much-reduced place of lit­er­a­ture and lit­er­ary writ­ers in our cul­ture. I per­son­al­ly see great works of lit­er­a­ture – includ­ing, yes, Tolstoy’s – as being not only among the most pro­found achieve­ments of human cul­ture but also deeply inspir­ing and enlight­en­ing on a per­son­al lev­el. Shirky is a very smart man, but I find his com­ments about lit­er­a­ture in gen­er­al and Tol­stoy in par­tic­u­lar to be expres­sions of an appar­ent­ly fash­ion­able form of philis­tin­ism. I have yet to dis­cov­er any­thing on the Web that has the emo­tion­al and intel­lec­tu­al res­o­nance of, say, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure or the poems of Robert Frost.

Open Cul­ture: If we are sac­ri­fic­ing our reflec­tive, con­tem­pla­tive fac­ul­ties, what do you think will be the long-term con­se­quences, both for the qual­i­ty of indi­vid­ual lives and for soci­ety at large?

Nicholas Carr: Well, as the title of my book makes pret­ty clear, I think we’re shift­ing toward shal­low­er, less inter­est­ing intel­lec­tu­al lives and, more gen­er­al­ly, a shal­low­er cul­ture. That doesn’t mean we’re get­ting dumb­er or stu­pid­er. It means that the empha­sis of our thought is shift­ing away from the more con­tem­pla­tive and soli­tary modes of thought that I believe give rich­ness and dis­tinc­tive­ness to our thoughts and even our selves. I ful­ly under­stand that there are plen­ty of oth­er peo­ple who don’t val­ue the qui­eter modes of thought and will hence dis­miss my con­cerns, but I think there are many oth­er peo­ple who, like me, sense a hol­low­ing out of intel­lec­tu­al life.

Open Cul­ture: Your book is basi­cal­ly descrip­tive, rather than pre­scrip­tive. You don’t offer any solu­tions. Are you pes­simistic?

Nicholas Carr: I’m not opti­mistic. But what I’ve tried to do in The Shal­lows is to describe care­ful­ly what I believe is going on, in hopes that it will raise people’s aware­ness. Rais­ing aware­ness is the most valu­able pre­scrip­tion I can offer as a writer.

Open Cul­ture: In your own life, are you doing any­thing to com­bat the prob­lems you describe?

Nicholas Carr: I’m try­ing to cut back on my use of the Net. In order to regain the con­cen­tra­tion nec­es­sary to write my book, I cur­tailed my use of e‑mail, didn’t use my cell phone, dropped my Face­book and Twit­ter accounts, and moth­balled my blog. It helped enor­mous­ly. My think­ing became much calmer and more focused. I have to con­fess, though, that I’ve been drift­ing back to my old habits. I haven’t giv­en up the fight, though.

This arti­cle was con­tributed by Mike Springer, a jour­nal­ist in Cam­bridge, Mass­a­chu­setts.

Pho­to by Joanie Simon.

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Comments (16)
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  • Matt says:

    Sor­ry, this was too long for me to read.

  • Lucy says:

    I *forced* myself to read this sto­ry from begin­ning to end with­out open­ing a new tab and googling some­thing irrel­e­vant like I usu­al­ly do. I won­der if you delib­er­ate­ly made it quite long?

  • Kate Kendall says:

    Great inter­view. You know it’s fun­ny – I tweet­ed the link out to my net­work but I know only a hand­ful of peo­ple will read it because they don’t have the con­cen­tra­tion to read more than 500 words online!

  • Bob Mahr says:

    As a par­ent of a 20 year old and 16 year old I have seen first­hand the effects described above and have fall­en vic­tim myself. A key is mod­er­a­tion and bal­ance, but if the bal­ance of “on-line time” is “TV time” it gets worse. We must choose to add quiet/reflective time be it with a nov­el, in nature, in prayer, with exer­cise, some­thing to allow our­selves to think deeply and con­nect with more than just the ‘media’.

  • Susan says:

    This is pro­found. I have noticed a change in my own abil­i­ty to con­cen­trate and relate to what the author describes. How­ev­er, I found the arti­cle com­pelling and only drift­ed away once. This is impor­tant. We need to bet­ter under­stand for good and for bad, our affin­i­ty to the web, tech­nol­o­gy, etc. and the cul­tur­al changes that will ensue.

  • TrustandVerify says:

    It is not just the Web that is affect­ing us. It is com­put­er games as well. All this tech­nol­o­gy is like tele­vi­sion on steroids for our soci­ety, espe­cial­ly chil­dren, teens and young adults. It makes me sick to see it.

  • As Lucy said in her com­ment above, after read­ing first few lines, I also forced myself to read this inter­view with full con­cen­tra­tion. I mean zero dis­trac­tions. And I agree, it was hard. This read seemed real­ly LONG!

    Mr. Nico­las makes a great argu­ment. I ful­ly attest to the behav­ior he is describ­ing. I don’t think I can change my habits to be away from the inter­net and dig­i­tal media. I won­der if med­i­ta­tion can help bal­ance the new world demands. Has any­one stud­ied that?

    –Sal­im Hem­dani

  • Jaz says:

    I was actu­al­ly sur­prised by how eas­i­ly I could read this arti­cle. Maybe it’s because I have a great love for lengthy, thick, elab­o­rate books as well as writ­ing. I have always appre­ci­at­ed a long nar­ra­tive with many well-thought out twists and turns.
    This does­n’t mean I don’t con­cur with most of Car­r’s state­ments how­ev­er. I see it hap­pen­ing all around me, espe­cial­ly with online con­tacts. Being some­what famil­iar with prin­ci­ples of Neu­ro-Lin­guis­tic Pro­gram­ming, I can very well see how the hyper­linked inter­net is able to rewire our brains and cause laps­es of con­cen­tra­tion. It hap­pens to me too.
    As for ‘cul­ture’: the inter­net is often said to have gen­er­at­ed a cul­ture of its own. It is a cul­ture that is spread­ing rapid­ly, more rapid­ly than many peo­ple would like it to. In that regard, Nicholas Car­r’s state­ment about the aim of his book being ‘cre­at­ing aware­ness’, I think is the best rem­e­dy for those who feel they have drift­ed to the shell of their intel­lec­tu­al being, and don’t feel hap­py just there. Being aware of these changes can enable those who want more out of them­selves, and more out of the world around them, to take the actions that fit them best.

  • Colombier says:

    I’m not sure if the obser­va­tion is only anec­do­tal or the cause is attrib­ut­able main­ly to inter­net. Sev­er­al years ago I was debat­ing with a recruiter whether the younger gen­er­a­tions these days can accom­plish so much in the work place. Her premise is that their com­fort with the mul­ti­tude of tech­nol­gies and the speed with which they can obtain infor­ma­tion have allow them to achieve far more. What I added though is that while they think broad­er (and pos­si­bly as a result achieve more), they were also dis­tract­ed from think­ing deep­er. “Per­cep­tion is real­i­ty” and our fast pace soci­ety in gen­er­al rewards doing things fast (and there­fore appear to do more) than think­ing deep (and there­fore appear to accom­plish less). If I can get away with it by scan­ning an arti­cle instead of minc­ing every word, it can become a habit quick­ly.

  • Andy Sentgeorge says:

    soooooo, read­ing is an indi­ca­tor of cog­ni­tive ability…interesting “big leap” cor­re­la­tions and I prob­a­bly even buy the log­ic, although I’ll reserve final judge­ment until I read the book. Seems like my grand­moth­er nailed this one 40 yrs ago though when she insist­ed that too much of a good thing is a bad thing.

  • Dennis says:

    We know that the inter­net is steal­ing our time, goals and cre­ative ener­gy. How­ev­er, I don’t believe that this arti­cle brings the point across in a way that fits today’s read­er.

    Between job, fam­i­ly and church, we bare­ly have enough time to breathe. When we do have time, we can­not allow the net to steal what lit­tle time we do have. My wife wants to write a book, but there is no way she can focus on writ­ing with the time she is spend­ing on the inter­net.

    We need to get a grip on the life we want to lead, not become a com­put­er chip for our jobs, friends and the …NET!!

  • Evan Plaice says:

    Blame the inter­nets…

    Those blast­ed inter­nets tak­ing all of my time and atten­tion against my will.

    The dif­fer­ence between jour­nal­ing and lit­er­a­ture is, lit­er­a­ture is writ­ten in a time­less way that’s sup­posed to last the ages.

    I would con­sid­er “Is Google Mak­ing Us Stu­pid?” to be just anoth­er mon­ey gen­er­at­ing ‘con­tro­ver­sy of the moment’ jour­nal entry geared to cap­ture the read­er’s atten­tion for a lit­tle while and recede into the realm of irrel­e­vance there­after.

    If the author real­ly cared about lit­er­a­ture, he’d be writ­ing it. Not, blam­ing the inter­net for his ego­tis­tic com­pul­sive dri­ves to be ‘in vogue’.

    Talk about low-hang­ing fruit…

  • John Kennedy says:

    For­tu­nate­ly we have been able to use cut­ting edge men­tal train­ing to coun­ter­act these results. We learn as chil­dren from inter­ac­tion with our envi­ron­ment and mod­el­ing from adults — as the rich­ness of inter­ac­tion devolves (pic­ture grow­ing up on a farm) to sin­gle sen­so­ry inputs (screen) and good adult mod­el­ing fades due to lack of good mod­els and time con­straints, it will only get worse in the future. UNLESS we use the prin­ci­ples of plas­tic­i­ty to coun­ter­act these trends.

    Our Com­bat Brain Train­ing pro­gram does this in just hours for any­one at any age using tar­get­ed neu­ro-exci­ta­tion — any one can learn how to adopt these tech­niques with­out the need to remove elec­tron­ic stim­u­la­tion from their lives. But like any­thing ben­e­fi­cial — it takes work!

  • forbes says:

    I read this and found it intrigu­ing. I have had a T.B.I. and I find the inter­net as a way to get lost, in the abil­i­ty of what do i want.

  • Manolo Beard says:

    its very good arti­cle, but as well I think the web design too dif­fi­cult to read, say, in my case I have a 15 “screen and I feel like the lyrics are very close togeth­er and for that rea­son I am on some occa­sions to Obligao copy a word to read it more com­fort­ably.
    thank you very much real­ly, I sup­port your arti­cle for a tri­al.

    Greet­ings from the land of base­ball play­ers RD and beau­ti­ful women.

  • cheap service in uk says:

    I’m new vis­i­tor for the site I m read­ing for the arti­cle in amaz­ing please more articles.for the cul­ture

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