Nicholas Carr examines how the Internet is affecting our brains
Do you feel that the Internet has altered the way our brains function? More than just emphasizing or de-emphasizing aspects of the brain, is it literally changing the way our brains function?
We know that our brains adapt to our environments. And the Internet is now an incredibly important part of our environment; it's where we spend a huge amount of our time working and socializing. So I think clearly it has an impact on the circuitry of our brains and the way we think. Now, brain scientists don't always have access to dig into people's brains and study their cellular structure, but there is a growing body of psychological and neuro-scientific evidence that shows that people who spend a lot of time online think in different ways than people who don't.
Are you hopeful that, twenty or thirty years down the road, we will overcome the debilitating aspects of the Internet and more fully embrace its usefulness?
I'm dubious about the idea that the technology itself could change in a fundamental way. For instance, that the Internet could suddenly encourage attentiveness. The Internet itself is geared toward distraction, interruption and multi-tasking, that's what it's made to do. It's not impossible to completely change the technology, but I don't see that happening.
I think there are some recent signs that people are resisting the more distracting qualities of the technology, and are trying to have periods of disconnection as well as connection. But then you have companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter who make money by keeping us distracted and taking in little bits of information very quickly. There's a lot of pressure to continue down the road we're already on. I'm hopeful that people become more skeptical and thoughtful about the technology, but so far the indicators aren't very reassuring.
Do you see any parallels between society's use of the Internet and the traditional behavior of substance-abuse addicts? Does it affect the same pleasure centers of the brain that cocaine or fatty foods do?
The brain does seem to take pleasure in discovering new information. And by taking pleasure, I mean it produces dopamine, which is a pleasure-producing chemical that you also see in all kinds of addiction. I'm a little wary of saying people are "addicted" to the Internet, but I do think the release of dopamine in discovering new information does explain how compulsive we tend to be in checking our smartphones and computers all the time. I don't think it's like heroin addiction; it's not going to kill you. But I think most people would confess to a kind of compulsive attitude toward the Internet.
Nicholas Carr will discuss his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains at 7 p.m. Thursday, January 10 at the Chautauqua Community House, 900 Baseline Road, Boulder. Tickets are $12 ($9 for members). For more information, visit http://chautauqua.com.