Book Review: The Shallows, What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains

This is a book about the human brain and how it works. At times it’s heavy reading, deep reading, which is very much the point. The author looks at how the brains of humans have developed over the millennia, not so much from an evolutionary perspective in terms of the shape of or newly formed regions in the brain but from the perspective of intellectual evolution. In other words, the brain itself hasn’t changed physically as much as it has changed in how it works based on two human developments that are actually quite recent in human history – maps and books.

Maps gave humans the ability to think in a more abstract way about the world around them. Books gave humans the ability to amass knowledge and to think more deeply than ever before. Books evolved from the cuneiform tablets of Mesopotamia and the Hieroglyphs of Ancient Egypt, to the creation of papyrus documents, connecting papyrus documents together to make scrolls, to the invention of the actual book as we know it around 1400, and then to the evolution of the written word and how sentences are formed. As books became more available, writing styles developed and evolved and deep reading was more possible than ever before, which led to deep thinking.

At a broad level, writing and deep reading allowed humans to think about specific ideas and concepts rather than spending our time scanning our environments looking for enemies or game to feed ourselves – a very distracted state. Other inventions also contributed to human advancement, like clocks, but they didn’t have as great an impact on our cultural evolution as maps and books from the author’s perspective.

One of the more interesting things covered is neuroplasticity, or how the brain actually works. The human brain is capable of rewiring itself throughout our lives either through training or through recovery from injury. For example, when someone suddenly goes blind from injury or illness, the brain can rewire the areas devoted to processing visual stimuli and redirect those areas toward improving touch or smell or sound. There are numerous studies that support neuroplasticity.

However this flexibility can be both a strength and a weakness. While it  can rewire itself as mentioned to allow other senses to develop when one sense is damaged, neuroplasticity can also cause problems when this rewiring doesn’t go quite right leading to obsessive-compulsive disorders, bipolar depression, or others.

How does the Internet affect the development humans have achieved over the last 500 years or more? We don’t have the capacity for deep reading or deep thinking on the Internet. Corey Doctorow, writer and tech guru, is quoted as saying we are plunged into an “ecosystem of interruption technologies” when reading on the Internet limiting our ability for deep reading, and therefore deep thinking. The backlit computer monitor delivers competing rapid-fire stimuli through the numerous alerts and distractions that come along with the Internet.

Michael Merzenich, neurosurgeon and author, writes “As we multitask online we are ‘training our brains to pay attention to the crap.’

But I have to wonder if the author stopped too soon. He focused on our collective intellectual journey primarily over the last 500 years, and now that it’s changing because of the Internet it is for the worse. My first problem with that is the assumption that everything leading up to the Internet was in the right direction. Though I can point to no alternate direction humans could have taken, it’s still an assumption that how we developed was along the correct path. My second problem is that the Internet can only be a bad influence though it promises so much more.

What if our brains are being rewired in a way that is positive, but we’re not able to see the end result yet? Perhaps we’re in transition to a new state of enlightenment. If deep reading is focusing narrowly and deeply on a topic and the Internet scatters our attention shallowly and broadly, is there a point at which the breadth of the “knowledge pool” we’re wading in becomes in itself a positive thing? Maybe we haven’t yet reached that breadth of knowledge required to attain this new, different intellectual state of awareness.

Though the Internet may be making our thinking shallower, perhaps the multitude of associations that can be made through this theoretical breadth of knowledge can more than make up for the narrowness and deepness of the specialized knowledge of our recent past. In other words, the Subject Matter Expert may be replaced by the Renaissance Man, the Jack Of All Trades, the handyman…

Also, it makes the assumption that everyone was a “deep reader” and therefore a “deep thinker” prior to the Internet. Before the Internet MOST people listened to Top 40, not Mozart. They read tabloids, not The Iliad. MOST were watching Friends or Roseanne or The Nanny, not enjoying Shakespeare at the theater. At least in the USA…

Though I don’t disagree with the basic premise of this book (the Internet can be bad for us) I absolutely have to question the scale of the problem it brings to light, namely that the Internet is turning everyone into distracted neurotics…

I gave it two stars because I did learn from the book, but I have reservations that everything human society achieved prior to the Internet was in a linear direction toward positive or “correct” evolution.

 

 

Book Review: The Shallows, What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains