Book asks: Is Internet ruining our minds?

NEW YORK Thu Jun 3, 2010 7:59pm IST

A generic picture of a woman in an office using a computer mouse. REUTERS/Catherine Benson/Files

A generic picture of a woman in an office using a computer mouse.

Credit: Reuters/Catherine Benson/Files

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NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - When author Nicholas Carr began researching his book on whether the Internet is ruining our minds, he restricted his online access and e-mail and turned off his Twitter and Facebook accounts.

His new book "The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains" argues the latest technology renders us less capable of deep thinking. Carr found himself so distracted that he couldn't work on the book while staying as connected, as is commonplace.

"I found my inability to concentrate a great disability," Carr told Reuters in an interview.

"So, I abandoned my Facebook and Twitter accounts and throttled back on e-mail so I was only checking a couple of times a day rather than every 45 seconds. I found those types of things really did make a difference," he said.

After initially feeling "befuddled" by his sudden lack of online connection, Carr said, within a couple of weeks he was able to stay focused on one task for a sustained period and, thankfully, able to do his work.

Carr wrote a 2008 Atlantic magazine piece that posed the controversial question "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" and wanted to dig deeper into how the Internet alters our minds.

His book examines the history of reading and the science of how using different media changes our brains. Exploring how society shifted from an oral tradition to the printed word and to the Internet, he details how the brain rewires itself to adjust to new information sources.

Reading on the Internet has fundamentally changed how we use our brains, he writes.

Facing a torrent of text, photos, video, music and links to other web pages combined with incessant interruptions from text messages, e-mails, Facebook updates, Tweets, blogs and RSS feeds, our minds have become used to skimming, browsing and scanning information.

As a result, we have developed sharper skills at making fast decisions, particularly visual ones, Carr says.

But now most of us infrequently read books, long essays or articles that would help us focus, concentrate and be introspective and contemplative, Carr writes.

ARE WE LIBRARIANS?

He says we are becoming more like librarians -- able to find information quickly and discern the best nuggets -- than scholars who digest and interpret information.

That lack of focus hinders our long-term memory, leading many of us to feel distracted, he said.

"We never engage the deeper, interpretive functions of our brains," he said.

To illustrate, he likens short-term memory to a thimble and long-term memory to a large bathtub. Reading a book is like filling the tub with water from one steadily flowing faucet with each thimble of information building upon the last.

By contrast, the Internet is countless fast-flowing faucets, leaving us grasping for thimbles of disparate information to put in the tub and making it harder for our brains to draw connections and have cogent recall.

"What we are losing is a whole other set of mental skills, the ones that require not the shifting of our focus but the maintaining of our focus," Carr said.

"Contemplation, introspection, reflection -- there is no space or time for those on the Internet."

Carr says for centuries books shielded our brains from distraction, focusing our minds on one topic at a time.

But with devices such as Amazon's Kindle and Apple's iPad, which incorporate eReaders and web browsers, becoming commonplace, Carr predicts books too will change.

"New forms of reading always require new forms of writing," he said.

If writers cater to a society that is chronically distracted, they will inevitably eschew writing complex arguments that require sustained attention and instead write in pithy, bite-sized bits of information, Carr predicts.

Carr has a suggestion for those who feel web surfing has left them incapable of concentration -- slow down, turn off the Internet and practice the skills of contemplation, introspection and reflection.

"It is pretty clear from the brain science that if you don't exercise particular cognitive skills, you are going to lose them," he said. "If you are constantly distracted, you are not going to think in the same way that you would think if you paid attention."

(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Patricia Reaney)

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