The Juggler’s Brain

[Book review, by Sandra Price]

A book I read recently by Nicholas Carr called “The Shallows : what the Internet is doing to our Brains” raised some interesting points about how we engage with information when we read online rather than reading printed articles or books. Because we are reading on the screen with hyperlinks that grab our attention, we are encouraged to dip in and out of the text rather than giving our attention for a long period. Search engines direct us to a small chunk of text that answers our search query. “We don’t see the forest when we search the Web. We don’t even see the trees. We see twigs and leaves.” We are further distracted by advertisements, links to video or audio content. And of course we’ll have alerts to new emails, our mobile phone rings, a new Facebook message comes in. “Whenever we turn on our computer, we are plugged into an ecosystem of interruption technologies, as the blogger and science fiction writer Cory Doctorow terms it.”

Should we worry about this? Here are some observations which Nicholas Carr makes in his book.

  • “The Net delivers precisely the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli – repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive – that have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions.”
  • “The depth of our intelligence hinges on our ability to transfer information from working memory to long-term memory and weave it into conceptual schemes.”
  • “The information flowing into our working memory at any given moment is called our cognitive load. When the load exceeds our mind’s ability to store and process the information – when the water overflows the thimble – we’re unable to retain the information or to draw connections with the information already stored in our long-term memory. We can’t translate the new information into schemas. Our ability to learn suffers, and our understanding remains shallow.”

So although we can access unlimited amounts of information easily without getting up from our lounge chair, the down side seems to be that our brain function is becoming altered.

Carr talks about eye tracking studies which show that “hardly any of the participants read online text in a methodical line-by-line way as they’d typically read a page of text in a book. The vast majority skimmed the text quickly, their eyes skipping down the page in a pattern that resembled, roughly, the letter F”

Apparently readers scan halfway across the screen then drift down the left hand side. They read fast. For each additional 100 words on a web page, people spend just 4.4 more seconds scanning it. People read about 18% of words on a page!! They also glance at pictures, ideas and ads on the screen at the same time. Does this sound like you? I have to say I think there is some truth in this when I think about my habits.

Now here is  some more interesting stuff. The faster we skim web pages the better for Google. Irene Au, the company’s director of user experience says “our goal is to get users in and out really quickly.” Google’s profits are tied to the velocity of people’s information intake. “The faster we  surf across the surface of the Web – the more links we click and pages we view – the more opportunity Google gains to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements.”

Carr reveals that “The quality of a web page as determined by the links coming in to it is no longer Google’s chief criterion in ranking search results.” It now places greater priority on ‘freshness’ of pages, checking for updates every few seconds!! This allows users to bypass quality and have search results ranked by how new the pages are. Do we think this is useful? Probably not.

Carr tells us surprisingly that many of Google services are not profitable in themselves e.g. YouTube. But if a service is popular, it allows Google to collect more information about us and our habits, and to channel more users to its search engine. This prevents would be competitors from gaining a foothold.

Some reflections which Carr makes about our changing habits which we will all relate to I think. We ‘outsource’ many of our brain’s activities to computers now e.g. GPS rather than using maps. People thought the web would “allow us to devote more time to creative thought.” But the human brain can never be full and as we add more to our long term memories our minds become sharper – the brain is modified in a way that makes it easier to learn ideas and skills in the future. “For a memory to persist the incoming information must be thoroughly and deeply processed.”

Another striking piece of information: “The influx of competing messages that we receive whenever we go online not only overloads our working memory, it makes it much harder for our frontal lobes to concentrate attention on any one thing. The process of memory consolidation can’t even get started.” It makes us shallow thinkers.

Carr makes an amazing historical reference towards the end of his book. “Socrates warned against taking ‘memory’s treasures for granted.’ He prophesied a tool that would ‘implant forgetfulness.’ It would provide a ‘recipe not for memory, but for reminder.’” And one of the final overarching reflections in this book is that “personal memory shapes and sustains the collective memory that underpins culture.” So by skipping around the internet for information with a juggler’s brain, it seems we risk not only the loss of our individual attention span and development of our intellect.


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