Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Internet or The Brain (Take Your Pick)

While I was a lad in my twenties, I found that my literary creativity depended on my devoting regular time to nature walks. I wasn't sure whether it was the peacefulness or else the mild exercise that helped me think; but whatever the cause, when I walked my thoughts grew deeper and more subtle. Key relations among themes and descriptions scattered across the scenes of my story would be revealed to me as I passed by hills, trees, and streams. As I walked I would become aware of an internal life and logic to my story; I discovered connections and complexities that I had never suspected when I was at my desk initially constructing my scene outlines and glorying in my cleverness at stitching together a rough plot.

Because of my experience with the benefits of nature on my creativity, I was curious to read Nicholas Carr's book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.

Carr's 2010 book, an elaboration of his highly regarded Atlantic Monthly cover story, is a journalist's account of how the Internet interacts with and modifies our thought patterns. Carr, as an intelligent layman writing a popular science treatment, generally relies on anecdotes drawn from history and literature. He mentions scientific studies but doesn't provide quantitative results. All the same, he seems to do a good job of summarizing the conclusions of the studies and explaining their significance. Here's an example (p. 124):

Imagine filling a bathtub with a thimble; that's the challenge involved in transferring information from working memory into long-term memory. By regulating the velocity and intensity of information flow, media exert a strong influence on this process. When we read a book, the information faucet provides a steady drip, which we can control by the pace of our reading. Through our single-minded concentration on the text, we can transfer all or most of the information, thimbleful by thimblefull, into long-term memory and forge the rich associations essential to the creation of schemas [memory structure]. With the Net, we face many information faucets, all going full blast. Our little thimble overflows as we rush from one faucet to the next. We're able to transfer only a small portion of the information to long-term memory, and what we do transfer is a jumble of drops from different faucets, not a continuous, coherent stream from one source.

Here is Carr's summation (p. 194):

The influx of competing message that we receive whenever we go online not only overloads our working memory; it makes it much harder for our frontal lobes to concentrate our attention on any one thing. The process of memory consolidation can't even get started. And, thanks once again to the plasticity of our neuronal pathways, the more we use the Web, the more we train our brain to be distracted – to process information very quickly and very efficiently but without sustained attention. That helps explain why many of us find it hard to concentrate even when we're away from our computers. Our brains become adept at forgetting, inept at remembering. Our growing dependence on the Web's information stores may in fact be the product of a self-perpetuating, self-amplifying loop. As our use of the Web makes it harder for us to lock information into our biological memory, we're forced to rely more and more on the Net's capacious and easily searchable artificial memory, even if it makes us shallower thinkers.

Carr's argument is persuasive and, consequently, depressing. The only ray of hope appears very near the end of the book (p. 219) and confirms my own experience concerning how nature benefits the mind.

A series of psychological studies over the past twenty years has revealed that after spending time in a quiet rural setting, close to nature, people exhibit greater attentiveness, stronger memory, and generally improved cognition. Their brains become both calmer and sharper. The reason, according to attention restoration theory, is that when people aren't being bombarded by external stimuli, their brains can, in effect, relax. They no longer have to tax their working memories by processing a stream of bottom-up distractions. The resulting state of contemplativeness strengthens their ability to control their mind.

This is why I have resolved to walk in the nearby park every evening and limit my time on the Internet.

Also, this is why that I assert that a randomly selected group of Iowa farmers would do a better job of governing the United States than the current officials in Washington, D.C.

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