I’ve always been a voracious reader. When my best friend Andrea and I were kids, we’d settle into the cushioned aluminum rocking chairs on my parents’ screen porch and read the afternoon away. That’s what we did for entertainment: we read together.
I still love to read. It’s my favorite past time – I love it more than writing and photography and even eating. But something is bothering me lately related to my reading habits. I find I am distracted when I read; I skim a lot; my attention wanders. I read two or three paragraphs and realize I don’t know what I’ve read at all. Or I finish a book and a week later I can’t recall what it was about. This disturbs me.
Just recently I read The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr, and I realized that I may not be crazy after all. It turns out, the disintegration of my reading skills may in fact be a product of my technology use.
Carr’s theory is based on the scientific concept known as neuroplasticity, which posits that repeated actions, whether physical or mental, can alter our neural circuitry. According to Carr, not only does prolonged and frequent use of technology – primarily Internet use, with all its myriad hyperlinks and sensory experiences – change the way our brain processes information, it also has the potential to change our brain circuitry permanently.
“Sometime in 2007 a serpent of doubt slithered into my info-paradise,” observes Carr. “The very way my brain worked seemed to be changing…I began worrying about my inability to pay attention to one thing for more than a couple of minutes. At first I figured that the problem was a symptom of middle-age brain rot. But my brain, I realized, wasn’t just drifting. It was hungry. It was demanding to be fed the way the Net fed it.”
Sound familiar? It sure does to me.
I admit, I spend hours and hours on the computer every week, mostly reading blogs, but also tweeting, posting on facebook and commenting. I click from blog to blog to blog, sometimes reading (skimming) 10 posts in one sitting.
I also read snippets of news online at msnbc, search for movie reviews, read book reviews on Amazon, shop, post photos, stream video on YouTube, download podcasts and, of course, send emails.
Not counting the time I spend online for my actual paying job, I’m probably on the computer 15 or more hours each week during my personal time (also not counting the time I spend actually writing my own blog content).
This intensive Internet use, Carr suggests, is changing the way my brain processes information. Perhaps permanently.
Furthermore, he observes, the more time we spend online, the less time we spend simply thinking, simply being. We fill our minutes and hours and days with mental detritus, leaving no room or time for the creativity, fulfillment and rejuvenation that comes with open space.
Toward the end of The Shallows, Carr writes this:
“In the 1950s, Martin Heidegger observed that the looming ‘tide of technological revolution’ could so ‘captivate, bewitch, dazzle, and beguile man that calculative thinking may someday come to be accepted and practiced as the only way of thinking.’ Our ability to engage in ‘meditative thinking,’ which he saw as the very essence of our humanity, might become a victim of headlong progress. The tumultuous advance of technology could, like the arrival of the locomotive…drown out the refined perceptions, thoughts and emotions that arise only through contemplation and reflection. This ‘frenzied-ness of technology,’ Heidegger wrote, threatens to ‘entrench itself everywhere.’”
“It may be that we are not entering the final stage of that entrenchment,” continues Carr in the last chapter. “We are welcoming the frenziedness into our souls.”
I don’t know about you, but the possibility that I may be changing the way my brain is wired really freaks me out. So I’ve decided to take some action.
Come back on Friday to read more about my plan!
How much time do you spend online and on technology every week? Do you find it might be having an impact on how you think or read or process information? Have you read The Shallows?