This is Your Brain on the Web

In my last post, I outlined what I loved about the web and specifically about blogging. I spend hours a day online reading, writing and researching. As a student, it’s an indispensable and extremely convenient tool. Rather than hunt down articles or books at the library, which may not even have them once I get there, much of the information that I need for research is available instantly online. I love the fact, as I mentioned in that last post, that the web offers a far larger array of interesting material than do most other mediums, all of which I can access with ease and basically no cost whatsoever. Essentially, I’m probably not going to stop my surfing habits any time soon. Some recent pieces by Nicholas Carr, however, have caused me to take pause and reflect on my relationship with the web, specifically how it has changed my habits and cognitive makeup – and yes, I found Carr’s pieces on the web. Specifically, it seems that my relationship with the web has significantly altered my relationship with my first love, books.

Anyone who knows me will know that I am and have always been an avid reader and lover of books. As much time as I spend on the web, I don’t see myself jettisoning the pleasure of the traditional printed book, even with the advent of the Kindle or iPad. In high school, my reading was at its most voracious. I would typically go through two books every week while fully absorbing and appreciating everything I read, never rushing through the finely crafted prose of Rushdie or without pausing to contemplate the ethics of A Clockwork Orange. I got through so many books in so little time simply because I had the drive and willingness to devote my time to them. Reading wasn’t a hobby or something I did whenever I had a spare moment, but rather a part of my everyday routine, as important as having breakfast or doing laundry – reading truly felt like a necessity.

This has changed somewhat over the past few years. Now, while I still consider books to be an integral part of my life, I find that I do less reading, though I still do read regularly. However, while I went through two or three books a week in high school, I might now take a week and a half to two weeks to finish a novel. Furthermore, I find that my memory is not quite as sharp as it once was when it comes to what I’ve read. For example, only a few years ago I could easily recall off the top of my head the last several books I had read and talk extensively about them, whereas it now takes a moment to remember the last book I read and the important details of it, most likely because I’m not constantly reading as I once was. I’d like to think that I still read more than the average person and I can still retain information about what I’ve read quite well, but somehow I don’t feel it’s as effortless as it once was. My reading habits have changed drastically, of  that there is no doubt. Sitting down with a book for three hours straight is now impossible though it was once routine, and I will spend a bit more time with each page in order to absorb its contents fully. This change of habit seems to directly correlate with my growing use of the web and the effect that it has had on my brain, and this is where Nicholas Carr comes into the picture.

Cognitive Overload

In a recent and incredibly thoughtful piece in Wired, Carr explores the effect that prolonged usage of the web has had on our brains, and the results are not particularly encouraging. I’m inclined to agree with Carr for the most part that the web has had something of a detrimental effect on our ability to process long-form information and store it for an extended period of time, especially because I myself took several attempts to get through Carr’s piece, which I should have been able to complete in one sitting. The crux of Carr’s piece is the assertion that the internet often presents an overload for our capacity to absorb and interpret information for future use. Carr employs an interesting metaphor to illustrate this, stating the following:

Imagine filling a bathtub with a thimble; that’s the challenge involved in moving information from working memory into long-term memory. When we read a book, the information faucet provides a steady drip, which we can control by varying the pace of our reading. Through our single-minded concentration on the text, we can transfer much of the information, thimbleful by thimbleful, into long-term memory and forge the rich associations essential to the creation of knowledge and wisdom.

On the Net, we face many information faucets, all going full blast. Our little thimble overflows as we rush from tap to tap. We transfer only a small jumble of drops from different faucets, not a continuous, coherent stream.

Psychologists refer to the information flowing into our working memory as our cognitive load. When the load exceeds our mind’s ability to process and store it, we’re unable to retain the information or to draw connections with other memories. We can’t translate the new material into conceptual knowledge. Our ability to learn suffers, and our understanding remains weak. That’s why the extensive brain activity that Small discovered in Web searchers may be more a cause for concern than for celebration. It points to cognitive overload.

Carr presents a scenario that any regular user of the web should easily relate to. The fact is we are constantly distracted by the overload of stimuli found on any page and we tend to skim each piece of information as a result rather than address it in-depth. True, we often skim books and magazines, but this hasn’t always been our dominant mode of absorbing information, though it might become the case if the web comes monopolize our intake of information. This propensity to skim content on the web rather than actually read it is perhaps what lies at the root of our inability to retain what we’ve seen, and this can in turn impact our overall capacity to retain content and reflect upon it on a deeper level. Carr does indeed assert that the habits we develop on the web can potentially make their way into our everyday lives. He says,

We know that the human brain is highly plastic; neurons and synapses change as circumstances change. When we adapt to a new cultural phenomenon, including the use of a new medium, we end up with a different brain, says Michael Merzenich, a pioneer of the field of neuroplasticity. That means our online habits continue to reverberate in the workings of our brain cells even when we’re not at a computer. We’re exercising the neural circuits devoted to skimming and multitasking while ignoring those used for reading and thinking deeply.

In this sense I agree with Carr. Too much time on the web can have detrimental effects, but I don’t think to solution is overly complicated, though it certainly might be easier said than done. What Carr’s argument boils to down to in my view is simply a reiteration of the old cliche that too much of anything is bad for you. As readers and creatures who thrive on retaining and reemploying information, we need to discipline ourselves as readers and ensure that we maintain these vital faculties. It’s as simple as balancing your reading on the web, which allows you to skim and pick up quick facts, with actual deeper reading from a book that requires more reflection.

I don’t doubt that deep reading can also be done on the web, though this too requires what in this day and age would probably be considered a Hurculean level of strength and discipline. This entails slowly navigating through a piece and reading every word without clicking every single link that you encounter or constantly opening new tabs to shift your focus to other content. It’s difficult to keep focus to a computer monitor, so this might require reading a fragment of a piece, again without meandering off the page, and coming back to it after a break, which at least allows you to take in the information presented to you bit by bit without getting distracted by your email or Facebook. Once again, I don’t deny that this is difficult – I stopped writing that last sentence halfway through to check Facebook before returning to finish it – but I think it is worthwhile to cultivate these habits as reading off of the web becomes more prevalent in all our lives.

One of the things that I love about the web, namely all the information it contains, is precisely what underpins its ability to constantly distract us. We wander constantly and in doing so we aren’t really reading or learning. In his short response to Carr’s piece, Andrew Sullivan also asserts that what we do on the web is not necessarily reading. Sullivan asserts,

Reading takes time, especially if you read slowly, as I do. A real book takes longer to absorb. You need to let a great book wander around your mind as you go along. Online, there is no wandering. The journey is so packed, the distances so great, it is more like watching the landscape from a train.

Many will certainly disagree that the web has this effect on us, but given my own personal experience with it and the effects it’s had on my attention span, I can’t help but agree with Carr. This is not to say that I’ll disown the web, but only that I will make a more concerted effort to preserve other faculties which the web might dull.

Those Damn Links

The other recent piece from Carr that grabbed my attention was his examination of the role of the hyperlink in constantly distracting us while reading online. Once again, this is something any regular internet user can relate to. Carr states,

Links are wonderful conveniences, as we all know (from clicking on them compulsively day in and day out). But they’re also distractions. Sometimes, they’re big distractions – we click on a link, then another, then another, and pretty soon we’ve forgotten what we’d started out to do or to read. Other times, they’re tiny distractions, little textual gnats buzzing around your head. Even if you don’t click on a link, your eyes notice it, and your frontal cortex has to fire up a bunch of neurons to decide whether to click or not. You may not notice the little extra cognitive load placed on your brain, but it’s there and it matters. People who read hypertext comprehend and learn less, studies show, than those who read the same material in printed form. The more links in a piece of writing, the bigger the hit on comprehension.

Indeed, the link is one of the most novel tools the web offers. The ability to instantly provide the reader with background information or another perspective on the topic at hand is not only convenient but potentially enriches the reading experience if we are able to use it responsibly. Links often feed directly into our propensity to be distracted on the web and once again lead us back to the fact that we might not absorb all that we have read if we are constantly distracted.

Carr argues for not scattering links throughout a post or article, but leaving them at the end so readers can follow up on what they have read once they have finished the piece. This would allow them to avoid the cognitive overload that Carr alludes to in the Wired article. This debate over this, particularly Carr’s exchanges with Jeff Jarvis, are especially interesting and can be seen on Carr’s blog.

I’m once again somewhat sympathetic to Carr’s argument, but on the other hand have grown accustomed to the idea of having links placed in context, so I am rather torn over this. I’m often guilty of getting distracted by links and often feel that if I encounter a link midway through a piece that I absolutely have to click and read it before finishing the piece I was initially reading. Then again, I feel like links scattered throughout a piece allows me as a reader to see exactly where the content being linked to is relevant. I’ve always placed links throughout my piece and will probably continue to do so, but Carr certainly has a valid point, and it is probably best left to the author’s discretion how they wish to display links. In the final analysis, links are always worthwhile and are excellent supplements to any piece of writing on the web, and it probably won’t matter a whole lot in the long where they’re placed, but the question is worth considering in light of the issue of distraction and information retention online.

Dealing with links, wherever they are placed, probably comes back to the idea of disciplining ourselves as readers. Somehow, we must find a way to get through a piece in its entirety and perhaps return to the links afterward for supplementary information. This, again, is no easy task, and I have no answers as to how to go about it, but there is no doubt that the usefulness of the link has to be balanced against our need to actually read and think about the information which is presented to us.

Anyway, that’s just my opinion, what the hell do I know?

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  1. Quick Hits and Update « We are Living in a Society

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