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.

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