Monday, January 14, 2013

The Shallowing of Our Minds (excerpt from A REAL LIFE)

The Shallowing of Our Minds

Recently my best friend ruined my weekend. He grabbed from his shelf a book published last year and said it might fit in with what I was writing. It was titled The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.
            I had never read a non-fiction book in two sittings, but Nicholas Carr’s book I just could not put down.
            He starts off with anecdotal evidence by Bruce Friedman, a pathologist at the University of Michigan Medical School, who notes that since the switch from reading printed material in the form of books to reading books on to the Net a decade ago, he and many of his friends and associates have noticed a marked lack of ability to concentrate. Losing the thread of their thoughts, they are unable to handle not only attention demanding novels like War and Peace, but have even “lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article.”
            Surfing, skimming along the surface of things, taking “information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles,” some of them worry that they have become scatterbrains.
            Carr himself notes that, “the Net seems to be chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. I feel like I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.” And he goes on to lament the trend of the “calm, focused, undistracted, linear mind being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts—the faster, the better.”
            He describes the typical new mind as that of a former student body president at Florida State University, a Rhodes scholar, who unabashedly states, “I don’t read books . . . it’s not a good use of my time . . . I can go to Google and absorb relevant information quickly.” And that from a philosophy major.
            The enormous difference between the two types of reading, Carr describes as follows: “To read a book silently required the ability to concentrate intently over a long period of time, to lose oneself in the pages . . . In the quiet spaces opened up by the prolonged, undistracted reading of a book, people made their own associations, drew their own inferences and analogies, fostered their own ideas. They thought deeply as they read deeply . . . Quiet, solitary research became a prerequisite for intellectual achievement. Originality of thought and creativity of expression became the hallmarks of the model mind . . . For the last five centuries . . . the linear, literary mind has been the center of art, science and society.”
            All the above stands in stark contrast to a completely different neuro-involvement, in that, “when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking and superficial learning.” Not to mention superficial thought.
            Carr gives no example so I will illustrate his statements with an obvious comparison. The op-ed pages of the print version of The New York Times contained, until recently, almost no advertising. You could read without visual distractions about complex often crucial issues like the Start treaty, global warming, and the Rwandan genocide, assimilating the articles with what you already knew, filling in spaces with your own opinions, reinforced by sympathy, or even empathy, at the end creating in your mind a brand new and exhaustive bank of knowledge on the topic, a new “complex concept or ‘schema’.”
            No more.
            A few days ago I read an op-ed piece on the web-version of The Times. The topic was the plight of homeless Haitian children following the earthquake. The piece was not alone on the page. While reading about human suffering, I was invited by a colorful, page-top streamer of smiling faces to “Vote for my Favorite Under 25 Movie Star,” while being simultaneously coaxed by a fluorescent blue ad for “A full-body waxing for only $99.95,” all the while, a video in a little box ran a trailer for the film 127 Hours in which someone stuck in a hole decides to saw-off, or chew-off, or nail-file off his own arm.
            Was I confused? Not on your life. I recall every detail of how for only $99.95, the Haitian under 25 movie stars got to chew off their own arms last summer at Wax Camp.
            Now that is what I call power-multitasking.
            As for the Haitian children, if they really want my attention, they’ll just have to get their own page-top magenta streamer.

The trend away from linear reading to the visuals of the electronic screen is truly jaw dropping. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2008 found young adults between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-four, while putting in 8.5 hrs of screen-time, read only an average of 7 minutes a day. To put it bluntly at the risk of over simplifying, that’s 510 minutes a day of shallow thinking vs. 7 minutes of linear, potentially deep, thought.
            Some may shrug and say, So what? Well, as Carr reminded us, the linear, patient mind, ”as supple as it is subtle, has been the imaginative mind of the Renaissance, the rational mind of the Enlightenment, the inventive mind of the Industrial Revolution, even the subversive mind of Modernism. It may soon be yesterday’s mind.”
            That prospect frightens me for a truly selfish reason. As you may recall, our childhoods were filled with parents, teachers and elders, advising us to slow down, take our time, think things through, sleep on it, come up with the best all-round solution. I must confess that in my case that had no effect but I’m sure that some of my very favorite people took it to heart. I met two, both doctors, both the directors of their respective departments at Cornell Medical School at New York hospital, one of whom was the “father of sonograms,” the other, the world’s best in his field. My experience with them after a freak accident ten years ago left me with a complete re-evaluation of the medical profession and taught me an unforgettable lesson about life.
            One doctor was in his forties, the other in his early sixties, and both had something nearly unearthly about them that in New York City stood out even more: an infinite calm. They translated that into patience and thoroughness, repeating the same procedure, double-checking, triple-checking, rethinking, reconsidering, until they were absolutely satisfied that not a flicker of doubt remained in their minds. They were determined to do the best job with a minimum of interference. Their aim in fact was to avoid any interference at all. And they did. The simplest thing would have been to perform surgery, but they resisted. They reflected. Thought “deeply, linearly, subtly.” Thoroughly.
            Will the Rhodes Scholar philosophy major, who has no patience for books, bother to do so? Or worse: would he, without the experience of reading and thinking profoundly,
even have developed the ability?
            Piling information atop information, without the wherewithal to have a broad overview; without the ability to consider all sides and all possibilities, without the experience for the kind of thinking we unconsciously develop while reading non-fiction or novels about complicated lives of complex people with often convoluted motivations, without that capacity for “concentration and contemplation,” will, I truly believe, lead to a plethora of knee-jerk responses from shallow thinkers, who are conditioned to only superficially “skim” their brains.
            It might just result in a society where thoughtless, often senseless outbursts will be the norm because our brains will have been physically transformed.
            If I understand neuro-physics, it all works something like this.
            Our brain cells—neurons—are separated from each other by barriers called synapses. The neurons communicate with one another through tentacle-like appendages called axons and dendrites. When a neuron is activated, a pulse releases chemicals called neurotransmitters, which allow the flow of an electric pulse from its axon to the dendrite of the next nearby neuron setting off a new impulse in that cell which is then, in turn, transmitted to others forming a whole circuit of paths. “Thoughts, memories, emotions,” Carr states, “all emerge from the electrochemical interactions of neurons . . . The average
neuron makes about a thousand synaptic connections, and some neurons can make a hundred times that number.” This varied and unique “mesh of circuits . . . gives rise to what we think, what we feel, who we are.
            “As the same experience is repeated, the synaptic links between the neurons grow stronger and more plentiful through both physiological changes, such as the release of higher concentrations of neurotransmitters, and anatomical ones.” Either through generation of new neurons, or new terminals on the axons and dendrites, we form
“chains of new neurons . . . our mind’s true ‘vital paths.’”
            He quotes the British biologist J. Z. Young, “The cells of our brains literally develop and grow bigger with use, and atrophy and waste away with disuse.”
            In a brilliantly simplified experiment, biologist Eric Kandel who eventually won the Nobel Prize, tested the brain cells of sea slugs and found that with very little training of only forty impulses, motor neuron connections can be reduced from ninety percent to ten percent. So, Kandel wrote, “synapses can undergo large and enduring changes.”
            Well now. If forty delicate impulses can lead to abandonment of eighty percent of connections between neurons, imagine what the eight-and-a-half daily hours of constant screen watching do to our neuron connections that were once in frequent use with deep reading and deep thought, that allowed people to concentrate, to make “their own associations, draw their own inferences and analogies, foster their own ideas”? What has the deluge of staccato bits of unconnected information done to our “originality of thought and creativity of expression . . . the hallmarks of the model mind . . . the center of art,
science and society”?
            Maybe we should hurry up and tweet someone to find out.

But the bad news gets worse. It seems that we have two kinds of memory, short-term and long-term. Envision short-term memory as a revolving door letting things in and spewing them out. Long-term is more like a vault, where memory is kept for years or even life. The problem is that changing a short-term memory into a long-term one is no simple task. One essential element is repetition—“the neurons grow entirely new synaptic terminals” hence causing an anatomical change. And as Kandel states, “The growth and maintenance of new synaptic terminals makes memory persist.”
            The formation of long-term memory, or what he calls  “complex memory,” requires “system consolidation” or “conversations” between entirely different areas of the brain. This “memory consolidation” requires not only time—some scientists say hours, others days—but also attentiveness, “strong mental concentration,” in other words “intense intellectual or emotional involvement.”
            Kandel now writes his most important conclusion, “For a memory to persist, the incoming information must be thoroughly and deeply processed. This is accomplished by attending to the information and associating it meaningfully and systematically with knowledge already established in memory.”
            The final element needed to create long-term memories is quiet time.
            With the continuous and intense surfing of the web, distracted by hypertexts, streamers, pop-ups, and videos, our minds are constantly bombarded by stimuli; our memory is on overdrive. There is no down time, no reflection, no chance for the mind to even begin consolidating, or forming “schemas.” And there is certainly no time for new neurons to be formed even if our poor brains could decide where to form them.
            So this is where our Rhodes Scholar who has cast away books goes wrong when he believes that instead of slow and considered reading, he can go on the web and “absorb relevant information quickly.” He may be surfing quickly, browsing quickly, even stopping to look at facts quickly but, for his long-term memory, for his complex memory he’s absorbing little or, nothing at all.

Aside from assimilating little, the active parts of the brain develop, while those parts left unused, wilt and atrophy. So let us go to an extreme. Let us say one browses the web all day, sends abbreviated e-mails, tweets, and texts, then goes home and plays a few video games; then, to “relax,” watches his obligatory five hours of TV. The only rest his mind gets, the only quiet time for complex memory to form, is while he’s brushing his teeth.
            The above, I fear, is much closer to the norm than to the exception. It is thus conceivable that one’s complex memory, the seat of one’s self, the source of thoughtful judgment and wisdom, is almost never engaged. Little by little, what small part had developed through the years, namely the complex part of our brain, shrivels. Of course, I suppose it could be slowly rebuilt, regenerated with use, but exactly when would this new, unaccustomed use occur? What would trigger it? And in a world made up of multiple screens and sound bites, who would even bother triggering it at all?

One final observation. Carr cites the work and comments of Antonio Damasio, the Director of USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute. Damasio and his colleagues have found in experiments that the higher, more noble human emotions such as compassion and
empathy, are slow to form in a situation; it takes time to comprehend and feel the “Psychological and moral dimensions of a situation . . . If things are happening too fast, you may not ever fully experience emotions about other people’s psychological states.”
            Let us go back to the question I posed chapters ago; what happened to Wall Street? How could some of the world’s brightest minds bring the world to the edge of financial chasm? How could they be so stupid? What were they thinking?
            I believe the answer lies in neurons. First, the financiers of Wall Street were not stupid; they were brilliant. They were brilliant at browsing and surfing, at skimming information, at buying and selling at the blink of an eye, at reacting to blips on a screen, to two-word news flashes, to pop-ups and to flags. They were even superb at reducing the world to numbers where the only thing that counted, the only single goal was—at the end of the day—to have a larger number showing on the bottom of the screen. True reality, the rest of the world, countries, people, mothers, fathers, grandfathers and children, sad or laughing, suffering or happy, never entered what we can call, without malice, their “equation.”
            In other words, the working memories of our financiers were frantically and permanently “otherwise engaged.” Meanwhile, their complex, long-term memories, their wisdom, empathy and compassion shriveled day by day.
            Think of this new generation that grew up with remote controls, and video games, Web surfing and tweeting, constantly distracted, and often overloaded, when did it have time to form complex memories? When did it have time to rest, think deeply, reflect? And when did it have time to feel compassion, sympathy, not to mention empathy?
            Unfortunately a new study by the University of Michigan shockingly finds “almost never.” Analyzing the personality tests of 13,737 college students over a 30 year period, between 1979 and 2009, the researchers found a 48 percent decrease in empathy and a 34 percent decrease in perspective-taking—considering someone else’s point of view.
            The authors of the study note that the biggest changes have occurred since the year 2000, with the inundation of callous reality TV shows, and the explosion of social networks and texting, which allow people to disengage from others at the click of a key. They blame these “physically distant online environments” for encouraging people to “lionize their own lives” and “functionally create a buffer between individuals, which makes it easier to ignore others’ pain, or even at times, inflict pain upon others.”
            Mary Gordon, the founder and president of Roots of Empathy, also cites a “poverty of time” in families. “You have to experience empathy to continue to develop it. If children don’t have enough opportunity and parents don’t have enough time to be with their children, it’s really difficult.”
            As our lives accelerate, as our attention span is shredded, will there be any of us with a complex memory left? Will any of us have that unique set of schemas, the brain’s vital paths, whose infinite array of combined experiences—physical, intellectual and emotional—made each of us so miraculously unpredictable, volatile, spontaneous; unique? Without empathy and deep emotions, when we are only indistinguishable flickers of keys and gleaners of information, then how close do each of us come to being clones?

A REAL LIFE: Rediscovering the Roots of Our Happiness is available through 
W. W. Norton and or wherever books and ebooks are sold. 
For more about the author, please visit


  1. Ads and distractions. Like this page with all the ads for books to the right.

    1. Quite right. I debated posting this piece at all given its conflict with the subject, but, ultimately, if it encourages readers to pick up a book, I think the good outweighs the bad in this case. I did, however, refrain from hyperlinks.

      Thanks for your close attention!