Nicholas Carr examines how the Internet is affecting our brains
Did you know that when we use a Google search engine, scan Twitter feeds or compulsively reach for our smart-phones, we're actually engaging evolutionary tools that have been with us for tens of thousands of years? And while these tools have aided our species survival, author Nicholas Carr argues that when we plug our knowledge-hungry minds into the Internet, we run a great risk of damaging our critical-thinking skills.
We recently caught up with the author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to our Brains in anticipation of his appearance at the Chautauqua Community House this Thursday, to discuss cavemen, critical thinking, and what Twitter has in common with cocaine.
Westword: What are some of the biggest before and after changes that we've gone through since the Internet has rooted itself in our lives?
Nicholas Carr: Well, I think the Internet encourages a certain type of thinking, a certain type of interacting with the world and with each other. It emphasizes multi-tasking, constant stimulus, gathering lots of little bits of information very quickly, constant exchanges of messages in this fast-pace skimming and scanning behavior. But on the other hand, the technology discourages other types of thinking that to me are extraordinarily important, the ways of thinking that define the possibilities of the human intellect.
The net discourages any type of thinking that requires deep attentiveness, that requires you to screen out distractions and incoming messages and really focus your mind on one thing for an extended period of time. Whether that one thing is something you're reading, or even paying attention to your own train of thought, the technology doesn't value attentive thinking. It actually discourages attentive thinking. So as has been true of other technologies in the past, the 'net shifts the balance of our thinking. We gain a lot, obviously, but we lose a lot of important things as well.
And do you feel that this is in contradiction to how evolution has built our brains to gather and process information?
No, actually I think it's quite in tune with how evolution has structured our minds. One thing we know about the human mind is that we do crave information. There seem to be deep biological impulses to go out and gather as much information as possible. And that makes sense, because back when we were cavemen, to know everything about your surroundings increased your chances of survival.
But we bring this primitive instinct into this new digital environment where there's no end to the amount of information we can absorb. We find it very hard to regulate that side of our behavior, we just keep gathering new info, even if that information is trivial. A lot of studies indicate that the more time you spend online, the less you become concerned about whether the information is important or unimportant. The overriding concern becomes just gathering new stuff.