Your Brain On the Internet

by Stephen Mills on June 20, 2010

Pancakes

“Contemplative Man, the fellow who came to understand the world sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, is a goner. He’s being succeeded by Flickering Man, the fellow who darts from link to link, conjuring the world out of continually refreshed arrays of isolate pixels, shadows of shadows. The linearity of reason is blurring into the nonlinearity of impression; after five centuries of wakefulness, we’re lapsing into a dream state.”  — Nicholas Carr

Note From Stephen:  This is a moderately long article.  In the spirit of it’s content, I resisted the urge to shorten it even though I know that means fewer people will read it all the way through.

Our brains are plastic; their structure changes based upon the way we use them.  This is no longer in dispute.  Therefore, it would be reasonable to conclude the Internet and our modern, always connected, world is changing our brains in new ways. We may actually be changing the way we think in important ways.  Whether this is good or bad is a subject of considerable debate.

Aside from changes in the wiring of your brain, there is evidence that the way information on the Internet is organized impacts how much of it we retain; how well we learn.  As an example, when we are reading on the internet we are typically bombarded with a lot of decisions to make.  The very existence of hypermedia links require our brain to make a decision on whether to click on them or not.  These decisions and other distractions increase the cognitive load on our brain and make us less likely to remember the material.  The more of your very limited cognitive resources you focus on encoding and integrating the ideas you are exposed to, the more likely you will be to remember them.  The web is not optimized for that kind of focus.

An excellent tool to remove the clutter and distractions surrounding text on websites is Readability.  Try it out on this article.

“The ability to skim text is every bit as important as the ability to read deeply.  What is different, and troubling, is that skimming is becoming our dominant mode of reading.  Once a means to an end, a way to identify information for deeper study, scanning is becoming an end in itself – our preferred way of gathering and making sense of information of all sorts.  We’ve reached the point where a Rhodes Scholar like Florida State’s Joe O’Shea – a philosophy major, no less, is comfortable admitting not only that he doesn’t read books but that he doesn’t see any particular need to read them.” — Nicholas Carr

If you care about your intellectual self, you owe it to yourself to consider how your Internet behavior is affecting your brain.  A thoughtful argument that we are losing something important with our Internet ways can be found in Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.  I found the book to be a compelling and thought-provoking read. As a book, it is much more in-depth and persuasive than his famous article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”  For an alternative viewpoint try Clay Shirky who is endlessly enthusiastic about the potential of the Internet.  His latest book is Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.  The Google article and and a series of articles by various authors in response are available on the Encyclopedia Britannica Blog.

I think both sides are right.  Google and the Internet are making us both smart and stupid.  There is endless potential, but if we are not careful we may be risking some of the traits we value most in ourselves.  I for one don’t want to become just another node on some giant global Google brain.  Wisdom and creativity spring from a deep well of personal knowledge and experience that is absorbed, integrated, and shuffled over a period of time.  People who believe they can outsource their knowledge to the Internet, and this is quite common among the young, will be missing that deep well of knowledge from which our intellect arises.  That well doesn’t come from the shallows of social media and infotainment.  Unless we drag ourselves out of the shallows and into some deep water on a regular basis, I think we are indeed losing some of what makes us special.

Attention spans have shrunk to what seems like a few seconds.  How many of you can sit still for a 10 minute video?  You would think people are being asked to watch 4 hour documentary on the history channel.  Unfortunately the best ones are usually the longer ones; occasionally they have some meat (TED talks for example).

Deep and reflective thinking seems to be disappearing and I think it is in large degree a result of changes brought about by Internet.  If it is still there it is being overwhelmed by the shallows.  Writers no longer write what they think, they write what they hope will rank in Google.  Despite all the touted diversity of the Internet, obsession with Search Engine Optimization often takes priority over content.  Google is funneling us into the narrow and boring land of the common.

We are undergoing a monumental technological and cultural shift in the way we live, work, and communicate.  We are probably undergoing a significant shift in the way our brains work.   On the whole I think it is a positive change and I for one would never want to go back to the pre-Internet era.  I doubt many others would either.  I have benefited in immeasurable ways from this information explosion; I feel like the world is literally at my fingertips.

The key to thriving in this new world while retaining some of our intellectual heritage is a sense of balance.  I know that sounds cliché but it may be nowhere more important than with regard to the Internet.  Unfortunately, if you watch the trends especially in young people who have grown up with all this, balance is exactly what is missing.

Here are some suggested alternatives to being online; alternatives that encourage deeper intellectual development:

  • Disconnect for significant periods of time – When you disconnect that means stop texting, talking on your cell, and checking email on your PDA.  You should disconnect for hours at a time and if that is too hard start slowly.  I know this is hard; it’s hard for me.  That seductive addiction to the online world will want to drag you back.  But you simply can’t focus the way you need to when you are connected, regardless of what you may believe.
  • Focus on something intellectual while you are disconnected – If you spend all your disconnected time watching mindless reality shows, you really aren’t accomplishing anything.  Yes you need down time and relaxation time, but I’m suggesting you also need thinking time.  TV is somewhat passive so it’s not my first choice, but there is quality content if you look for it.  Documentaries, history, biographies, nature, and science shows are all excellent choices.
  • Read books – Reading rates for pleasure are dropping rapidly.  Even more frightening is that much of the time spent reading is also spent multi-tasking with other media like watching TV or texting.  This is especially true among children.  Reading paper books or electronic books on something like a Kindle in a quiet place away from your computer allows you to concentrate in a way that’s nearly impossible online.  If you are using other media or skimming and hopping around online you simple can’t get lost in your thoughts or in a story.  If you are in a noisy environment put on headphones and listen to white noise such as pleasing rain sounds.
  • Read non-fiction part of the time – I read mostly non-fiction.  You don’t have to read books on theoretical physics, but try to read books that make you think.
  • Read in moderate stretches of time – I will sometimes read for hours at a time.  That’s probably a mistake because your brain needs time to consolidate what you are reading.  There is some evidence that you should take short breaks about every 30 minutes.  But you can’t get lost in thought or into the flow of what you are reading if you read in 5 minutes stretches.
  • Spend time in reflective thought – This is probably by far the toughest for most people.  I know it is for me.  I have a difficult time doing it in a chair so I usually combine it with a walk in a pleasing, at least partially natural environment.
  • Rest and Renew – learning requires renewal time.  Time for your brain to reload and to consolidate and integrate what you are absorbing into long-term memory.  Sleep is critical to this process so get plenty of it.  But even beyond sleep, activities like a quiet walk in a park have been shown to increase subsequent mental performance.

“But today, I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self-evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the “instantly available”.  A new self that needs to contain less and less of an inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance—as we all become “pancake people”—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.” — Richard Foreman

I don’t want to be a pancake.  What about you?

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Give & Get » Shared Ideas and the Internet
June 25, 2010 at 2:45 am
Shared Ideas and the Internet | This Should Help
May 10, 2011 at 5:16 pm

{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

Bradley Gauthier June 20, 2010 at 10:13 pm

Such a great post Stephen! My reflective thought time occurs when I go out fishing 🙂

Thanks!
Bradley Gauthier´s last blog post ..5 Feel-Good Benefits of Owning a Business

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Stephen Mills June 21, 2010 at 11:46 am

Hello Bradley. I don’t fish but that sounds like a great time. I know some people who love fishing and I might try it out in my “golden years” 🙂 Thanks for your comment

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Earl June 21, 2010 at 10:27 am

Excellent post. I also think that the internet is causing us to lose our ability to connect with other people on a meaningful level. It is increasingly difficult to hold a long, interesting conversation with somebody as a result of our decreased attention spans, our constant need to check our email/phones and our reliance on internet ‘friendships’ that don’t require actual face-to-face human interaction.

It’s just too common these days for three people to be sitting in a living room, each with their own laptops. and without any of them speaking to each other!
Earl´s last blog post ..Do I Need A Floating Camera Strap?

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Stephen Mills June 21, 2010 at 11:48 am

Hi Earl, that is an excellent observation. I go to lunch or to happy hour with some of my friends and the cell phones and BB’s are always active. It’s really sad. We have to force ourselves to disconnect.

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Sarahmarie June 21, 2010 at 2:13 pm

I really appreciate your thoughtful and helpful blog posts and e-mail updates. This is one of the best yet. Earl is right, people are losing the ability to actually talk to each other face to face, and e-mail seems to be ruining the art of letter writing. I have seen comedy sketches and jokes where two people are sitting next to each other on a park bench — texting each other!

Many thanks are in order for suggesting Readability. It works beautifully with your main blog (not your e-mail updates, at least in gmail), and I hope it will come in very handy while perusing sites like Huffington Post.

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Stephen Mills June 21, 2010 at 8:59 pm

Hello Sarahmarie. Thank you so very much for your kind words. I’ve noticed that Readability doesn’t work in Gmail either. I think there are some add-ons for Firefox that strips out the extra stuff.

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Angela Artemis June 21, 2010 at 5:50 pm

Stephen,
This was an excellent article – I read every word, which doesn’t happen all that often anymore. The internet does have both positive and negative impacts on us. I can see with myself how my attention span has shortened and how easily distracted I am online while reading a post. It’s not only all the links in the articles and headlines and offers in the margins but the sound of new email coming into my inbox that distracts me. Also most new computers allow you to have unlimited amount of tabs open at one time so there’s the distraction of all the things you’ve opened and haven’t even read yet. Frankly, I find myself more stressed now than before I had an email account in the late 90s!

Since I started blogging and connecting with many bloggers I’ve come to conclusion that there is a cookie cutter mold out there that everyone seems to have. I’m also amazed at how many 20 somethings are touting their advice all over the place – as if they have lived long enough…. I’ve also noticed how much regurgitation of topics there is on blogs.

While the Internet has given us access to information globally I do agree we can’t possibly absorb all of it. It’s overwhelming trying to “keep up.” I think your absolutely right in saying we need to disconnect for chunks of time.

Thank you for such a great post!
Angela Artemis´s last blog post ..Global Healing June 21, 2010: Urgent Call to Action

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Stephen Mills June 21, 2010 at 9:05 pm

Hi Angela! Thanks for your very thoughtful comment. Since I love books I find it is a great way to get away for a while. I agree there is a lot of regurgitation of topics; it seems everything has been covered a hundred times. I like to write long posts but I know that people don’t often read them, so I don’t do it as often as I would like.

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Billy June 22, 2010 at 11:05 am

Great post. I really found your words a ray of understanding and enlightenment. Thank you

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Stephen Mills June 22, 2010 at 12:18 pm

Hi Billy, thanks and I found your comment very nice 🙂

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Joshua Noerr June 24, 2010 at 1:06 pm

It’s funny, even with the instant availability of information, it seems as a society, we are getting dumber. I believe it stems from the ease with which someone can be entertained. Entertainment is far too easy, and therefore requires no creativity.

While we may be able to process more information, and perhaps even retain it, the creative process within the mind is losing it’s edge in a lot of ways. You made some great points about resting and reflective thought. Sometimes, you just need to silence the noise, and let the mind do what it does.

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Stephen Mills June 24, 2010 at 8:25 pm

Joshua, you make a great point about these ease with which we seem to be entertaining ourselves. It is so passive. It started with TV in my mind and now with things like You Tube this passive entertainment mode seems to be dominant. Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

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Sandra Hendricks June 25, 2010 at 12:25 am

Hi Stephen,

This article really offered something unique. I had not put any thought into this until now, but I agree with what I just read. Taking the time and really absorbing and engaging our own thinking is something we have to practice.

I am very thorough when I read books, but I do scan throughout some things on the blogs I read. I agree with Angela on this point. “I’ve also noticed how much regurgitation of topics, there is on blogs.” Thank you for offering something new and well worth thinking about!
Sandra Hendricks´s last blog post ..What Motivates You to Take Action?

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Nea | Self Improvement Saga June 25, 2010 at 2:16 pm

This was definitely an interesting read. I can’t say that I fully agree or disagree with the content. With the Internet and everything else in life, it seems that we’re all better off by remembering a little thing called balance.

I read blogs, books, magazine, newspapers, pamphlets. I watch movies, videos, documentaries, etc. I enjoy experiencing it all and I think there is something very positive about variety.

We can overdo (or under-do) pretty much anything–and the Internet is no exception.
Nea | Self Improvement Saga´s last blog post ..The 5 Love Languages – Your Key to a Healthy Relationship

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Jonathan - Advanced Life Skills June 26, 2010 at 8:27 pm

Stephen, this was so very good. How telling is it that it actually took several tries before I could find the time to read it clear through? When people unsubscribe from my newsletter the most common reason given is that they just don’t have the time to read it. I can relate to their plight. Thank you for dragging us all into the deep end my friend.
Jonathan – Advanced Life Skills´s last blog post ..How to Instantly Influence Others

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Peaceful Paradox September 18, 2010 at 4:00 pm

Good post (although I must admit that I did not read every work). But I got the gist of the material. The reason why we do not have long attention span is because we don’t have enough time, so we try to do multiple things at once.

I like to read non-fiction books as well. TED talks is good and short — I like those. Although I can not watch a four-hour long documentary. A two-hour one is acceptable if I’m doing something else at the same time (like ironing).

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tian September 25, 2010 at 2:07 am

try to read books that make you think
take short breaks about every 30 minutes
reflective thinking

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Michael October 4, 2010 at 12:10 am

As a “generation-x” person who spends most of his time on a computer I personally think that this article is ridiculous. There are a lot of websites that feature “deep” information to be pulled apart and digested. You’re viewing the internet through a tunnel. You can even read free books on the internet… It can assist you in every mode of life. You can work on the internet, buy food on the internet, and you would never have to leave your house(that you bought on the internet). I’m sorry, but I took personal offense to this argument because I have seen alot of similar articles and I spend alot of time while I’m on the web at various forum websites that feature deep philosophical discussion….

Anyway, I wasn’t arguing just to argue haha. I sat here and thought about this for a while and decided it would be best to take a stand against people who would discourage the use of the most powerful resource mankind has ever known.

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快播电影 May 18, 2011 at 4:23 am

try to read books that make you think

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Sonny August 10, 2011 at 6:48 pm

I read a quote a long time ago (I wish I could remember who said it) that said something to the effect of:

There’s no activity that man shrinks from more readily than that of sustained thought…

…which is why people would rather waste hours upon hours watching TV, surfing the web, playing video games, engaging in endless chatter, etc.
Sonny´s last blog post ..Color Your Word with the Write Utensils

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Rusty September 7, 2011 at 7:57 am

I love this site and like this article. Thank you for taking the time.

I recommend to people that they should continually work on creating their own library of all the “great books,” as many as they can afford. At least one a month is within reach of most people. They should research and buy the best version of each work in terms of binding, paper, print, translation, faithfulness, et cetera. It doesn’t matter if they will never read them all. Their library is not only for themselves but for their children and grandchildren.

Great works of literature improve one’s thinking and ultimately one’s character. Not only is there is much distilled wisdom within them, the mind will try to imitate the thought patterns it sees. Time reading these works is time spent with some of the greatest minds in history.

Since this is an article about thinking and I’m a language teacher and can’t help myself, I’d like to add something. The word “impact” more appropriately refers to a violent blow, collision, or a tight packing together. I’ve seen this word become commonly misused in my lifetime, made popular by commercial interests. One should use “effect” (a noun) or “affect” (a verb) instead.

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Y8 October 24, 2011 at 7:42 pm

Don’t even know what to say on this topic. So much ideas are mixed in my head after reading it. Very problematic article I think

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Ben December 15, 2011 at 1:43 am

“Scientists have found that compulsive internet use (10 hours a day, 6 days a week) can produce morphological changes in the structure of the brain.[24] A study which analyzed Chinese college students who used a computer around 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, found reductions in the sizes of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, rostral anterior cingulate cortex, supplementary motor area and parts of the cerebellum as high as 10-20%.[24]”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_addiction_disorder#Support

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Nhathalie Jean-Baptiste April 25, 2012 at 7:59 pm

I would like to say that this article has given me a reason to write a proposal paper on how to balance life with technology. It has made me understand why certain things that were said by Shirky and Carr could make much sense and I’m 20 years old. I’ve learned and believes that it is people’s will that give them the ability to choose between making themselves smarter with using the Internet and it’s their will to use the Internet to make them dumber. I honestly have no interest in the negativity of the Internet, I only focus on the good and resourceful. So, thank you for this article because it makes me feel good to know that not only I believe that both arguments over the Internet are valid pertaining to the whole human race.

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Marcia Kin August 24, 2012 at 3:27 am

This is very educational post Stephen. I got a lot of thoughts in your post!!!
Marcia Kin´s last blog post ..You Are Sure To Be Impressed With The Results Of These Teeth Whitening Tips

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sueyq December 17, 2012 at 6:22 pm

I enjoyed the read, and the ideas and thoughts though out. the world is changing and so we must too. some things are bad and then others are good, I have always been told that you do all things in moderation. So I tend to these roots of thought. I do a little of everything except in winter when the cold winds of chicago drive me in doors, I am building and working online, so that is the computer time, I paint my pictures, I cook my dishes, I go to team building events, I work a day job, I play at making jewelry, and I read my books but on audible. I dream of outdoors playing in my garden, going camping and getting wet swimming. I don’t watch much tv. unless it is the dyi kind of thing. The News is always sad stuff which I try to escape from. Within my dreams, my goals, and the way in which i think and grow. I am only 56, but I adore life and most in it. Finally I am truly motivated by that which I have read here from you and some of the others. Life, sweet!

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Colleen January 7, 2013 at 12:11 am

This is a really good article, I enjoy reading your articles. As a teenager myself, I know exactly what it’s like standing next to your friend and trying to talk to him/her but they are totally absorbed in their social media. I was wondering if you ever studied human behavior or are all ur posts based on ur observations?

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judycritchlow April 28, 2013 at 10:40 am

im absolutely in awe of your article, it has enabled me to feel so normal and happy after being made to think i was an outcast because of my thinking, and now i know im not alone. There are others out there, and i thank you for all i have gained from reading what you say.

THANK YOU SO MUCH.
judy CRITCHLOW.

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Youve got an awful lot of text for only having one or two
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Y8 Games´s last blog post ..Y8 Games

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David Franklin January 20, 2015 at 2:56 pm

I used to think I didn’t have enough time to read every interesting article, watch every interesting video, email every interesting person, etc.
Now I know that’s true. But I also know that most of what’s out there is junk. Interesting junk, maybe, but ultimately the mental equivalent of junk food and snacks.
What I also know is that I have exactly the same amount of time as my ancestors did. What has changed is how much information is available. But just because I *can* consume more information than they did, does that mean I should?
Or should I also spend my life on conversation, eating, sleeping, dancing, physical labour, writing and reading on paper, travelling, intimacy, contemplation, prayer, meditation, fighting, singing, playing?
Why am I even asking that question? The answer is obvious, so no more commenting from me, just props for an excellent article, cheers, I’m off to go do some living!

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