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When first publicized, the findings were greeted with cheers. By keeping lots of brain cells buzzing, Google seemed to be making people smarter. But as Small was careful to point out, more brain activity is not necessarily better brain activity. The real revelation was how quickly and extensively Internet use reroutes people’s neural pathways. “The current explosion of digital technology not only is changing the way we live and communicate,” Small concluded, “but is rapidly and profoundly altering our brains.”
What kind of brain is the Web giving us? That question will no doubt be the subject of a great deal of research in the years ahead. Already, though, there is much we know or can surmise–and the news is quite disturbing. Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, and educators point to the same conclusion: When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. Even as the Internet grants us easy access to vast amounts of information, it is turning us into shallower thinkers, literally changing the structure of our brain.
What scientists have found, Carr observes, is that information taken in through the Internet is not retained, because of the way it enters our consciousness:
The depth of our intelligence hinges on our ability to transfer information from working memory, the scratch pad of consciousness, to long-term memory, the mind’s filing system. When facts and experiences enter our long-term memory, we are able to weave them into the complex ideas that give richness to our thought. But the passage from working memory to long-term memory also forms a bottleneck in our brain. Whereas long-term memory has an almost unlimited capacity, working memory can hold only a relatively small amount of information at a time. And that short-term storage is fragile: A break in our attention can sweep its contents from our mind.
Imagine filling a bathtub with a thimble; that’s the challenge involved in moving information from working memory into long-term memory. When we read a book, the information faucet provides a steady drip, which we can control by varying the pace of our reading. Through our single-minded concentration on the text, we can transfer much of the information, thimbleful by thimbleful, into long-term memory and forge the rich associations essential to the creation of knowledge and wisdom.
On the Net, we face many information faucets, all going full blast. Our little thimble overflows as we rush from tap to tap. We transfer only a small jumble of drops from different faucets, not a continuous, coherent stream.
Carr says that we “accept the loss of concentration and focus, the fragmentation of our attention, and the thinning of our thoughts in return for the wealth of compelling, or at least diverting, information we receive.” That’s true. Believe me, as someone who has spent most of his workday in front of a computer screen, surfing for information, most days in the last 10 years, I have seen a noticeable degradation in my ability to focus on a single task for any sustained period of time. My mind is always jumping from one thing to the next. In order to finish my book five years ago, I had to check myself into a hotel room where there was no free Internet access, because I was too easily distracted. I am constantly reading books, but rarely finish any one book; I lack the patience. I wasn’t always that way.
Here’s the thing: it’s not like this is a choice for many of us. For years, my job has required me to be a skillfull and constant surfer of the Internet, and I’m good at it. Now, I’ve started a job in which I’m the editor of an online magazine (launching later this summer). This is what I do. This is what I’m good at. Unless I left journalism, I’m bound to the Internet. And it’s not just journalists: many of us use the Internet to make our living, whatever our field. You can disconnect from it more easily if it’s nothing more than a source of pleasure for you, but my sense is that a small and diminishing number of us have the freedom to stay away from the Internet, because it’s bad for our brains.
How is this going to change us, cognitively? We’re going to find out, whether we like it or not. How will this change us morally? One thing it will do, I predict, will be to make us far more easily and quickly bored, which will have a moral effect insofar as we will be more eager to seek out sensation, and the quick payoff, instead of developing skills of patience and delayed gratification, and a moral sense that rewards self-discipline. In the future, instant gratification will not be fast enough.