'The Shallows' and Four Ways to Counteract “What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains”
Thanks to our brains’ neuroplasticity, our brains dump the information we consume online. Our long-term memory, according to Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, directly affects our intelligence. And it’s suffering. Why should our brains store information if we can just google it?
And It’s not just our long-term memories that are at risk either. A 2015 Microsoft Canada consumer insight report says that the average attention span decreased from twelve seconds in 2000 to nine seconds in 2015. The report compares the average human attention span in 2015 to that of a goldfish!
In the report, Microsoft assures its audience, advertisers, that “it’s not as bad as you think” but later states, “Long-term focus erodes with increased digital consumption, social media usage, and tech savviness.”
Regardless, the internet is a fact of life in 2018. Most of us have to use the internet for work. Our kids use the internet at school. And for better or worse, the internet is here to stay. So how do we live with technology without sacrificing our brains? In The Shallows, Carr offers a few suggestions.
Four Ways to Live with the Internet without Sacrificing Your Brain
1. Get back to nature.
Have you ever heard of attention restoration therapy? I certainly hadn’t. In The Shallows, Carr writes,
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 retaliation their, or ART, 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. (p. 219)
Now what to do about all those ticks…
2. Get your news from a good old-fashioned newspaper.
Ok this one isn’t Carr’s idea, it’s mine. I’ve experimented with print media on and off for a while now. I didn’t need to read Carr’s book to know that the internet is affecting my brain. I feel more anxious and irritable after spending time online where I skim. If you get most of your news from the internet, you could drastically reduce your screen time by subscribing to a physical newspaper. (Hopefully you won’t forego my lovely blog, but if you do, I understand!)
Reading a physical newspaper also gets us off the roller coaster of the 24-hour news cycle. And local publications can information us about ways we can engage with our local communities in real life. They also help put the issues our country faces into perspective.
In James Fallow’s feature, “The Reinvention of America,” published in The Atlantic, he argues that we need to correct our “distorted picture of events beyond our immediate experience that comes through the media, professional and informal alike. The strain on local media, whose effects we saw everywhere, is an important part of this distortion. One to-do step for citizens: Subscribe to local publications while they still exist.”
Fallow’s article, which explains why America is still a land of promise, plus my internet-induced irritability spurred me to subscribe to the Sunday Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. My Sunday mornings are more relaxing, and I finally have enough browns for my compost pile. Win-win!
3. Keep a commonplace book.
If you’re looking to kick your cognitive functioning up a notch, you’ll want to keep a commonplace book. In The Shallows, Carr explains that students used commonplace books to collect book quotes and marginalia, which they then memorized.
Commonplace books, popularized by Erasmus of Rotterdam, were an integral part of education during the early modern period. “The passages could be viewed as ‘kinds of flowers,’ which, plucked from the pages, could be preserved in the pages of memory,” Carr writes. (p. 178) Erasmus saw this kind of memorization as “a process that led to a deeper and more personal understanding of one’s reading.” (p. 179)
I started a commonplace book of my own since I have been keeping a haphazard commonplace pile of scrap paper for a while now. I’m looking forward to having all the quotes and bookish wisdom I’ve collected in one spot. I’m also looking forward to remembering the books I read and expanding my mind. As Carr writes in The Shallows, “We don’t constrain our mental powers when we store our long-term memories. We strengthen them. With each expansion of our memory comes an enlargement of our intelligence.” (p.192)
4. Read books.
If you’re going to keep a commonplace book, you’re going to have to read books in order to have something to write in it. And finishing a book requires sustained attention. Even if you only read for 10 minutes at a time, you’re still sustaining your attention longer than you would online. Plus, there are scientifically-supported cognitive benefits to reading including increased empathy.
Reading The Shallows made me acutely aware of how much information never makes it to my long-term memory thanks to the internet. It also made me realize how much skimming I do. Obviously, I’m not abandoning the internet, but I’m hoping my walks outside, commonplace book, newspaper subscription, and love for books will prove to be healthy countermeasures to my dopamine-fueled internet binges. Although The Shallows was written in 2010, it is as relevant today and it was eight years ago, and I encourage everyone to read it.
Finally, I’ll leave you with two of the first few quotes I recorded in my commonplace book.
“Cultures evolve and surround their children in an environment that reflects familiar values. Bigots are made, not born. But deep compassion also requires teaching, and a great story can be a persuasive lesson.”
—Derek Thompson, Hit Makers, pp. 129-130
“I had won this day because I had chosen to play instead of giving in to my suckiness…The only way to win is to first find any way to put yourself out there.”
—Zach Anner, If At Birth You Don’t Succeed, p. 261
The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains
By Nicholas Carr
W. W. Norton & Company. 304 pp.