Ah the web! Twenty years ago could someone have envisaged grandparents in Ireland talking to their grandchildren in Australia as if they were sitting in the same room? Or the weekly shopping arriving at your front door all because of a few clicks of a mouse? The opportunities the Internet has opened up to society are breath-taking, and the possibilities this medium offers are dizzying. Yet, as we get caught up in the whirlwind of this technological phenomenon, with its ferocity increasing every day is there anyone taking a step back? Is there anyone holding an umbrella up to the monsoon of technological bombardment and wondering how all of this is effecting the individual? The video below shows Nicholas Carr, a man tackling this exact problem, explaining how he feels the internet is affecting us:
My personal research project involves looking into exactly what Carr has spoken about here. I am an English major, also studying Psychology as a minor subject and I am intrigued by how the Internet could, and most likely is, altering our cognitive capabilities. In particular I would like to look at the way we read, and how the Internet may be moulding us into a different form of reader than what we were as little as 10 years ago.
A big ask for an article confined to a thousand words you might say, but I am not alone. People like Nicholas Carr have devoted their attention to this field of study long before I ever learned how to use a computer (something I admit to still not being able to do fully!). So, in attempting to underline the intentions of my personal research project I’m going to call it the following: A look at how we, as readers, are changing to adapt to ever increasing volumes of information available to us.
The stereotypical cave man, the hairy fella lacking table manners, craved information. More so, he depended on his ability to intake and decipher this information with his life. He learned to decipher between information that may mean a threat is nearby, and that of little relevance. The differences between the bush rustlings of a saber- toothed tiger and something like, I don’t know, a squirrel for example!
Fast forward 10,000 years, fast forward to the modern man. He walks briskly through the bustling street rushing to a meeting, his laptop with him, Rolex on his wrist, he sips his coffee while he discusses the topic of the meeting with one of his work colleagues who walks with him, all the while trying to get through to the secretary on his Blackberry to inform her that they will be a few minutes late. City parking! Saber- toothed tigers? Aren’t they a hockey team? Whatever! He’s into number crunching, fast data and results. Much more advanced than the primitive cave man right? An increased interest in personal hygiene maybe, more advanced cognitively? I’m not so sure. The fact remains, both the cave man and the modern man, are driven by the unquenchable thirst for new information.
We, like our primitive ancestors, crave new information so much that our brain rewards us when we obtain it. Dopamine is released in the brain to induce pleasure when the brain undergoes something it enjoys. Judging by the fact that dopamine levels increase when obtaining new information, it must be argued that the brain sees this act as wholly beneficial. Interestingly the brain releases the same compounds during sex as it does when obtaining new information. This dopamine release acts as a positive reinforcer, a form of encouragement to repeat that same act again.
So knowing what we do about the composition of our brain, and its satisfaction in obtaining new information, where do we stand in a world delivering more new information than ever before. The aforementioned Nicholas Carr, in his book The Shallows, suggests that because of this ‘data deluge’ we are losing our ability to ‘read deeply’. Carr’s argument is that as our reading of on-screen articles, injected with links, pictures, videos etc. increases, the way we read is changing. In a sense, and at the risk of sounding contradictory, we are turning into literate cave men. Our prehistoric ancestors scanned their environment, quickly taking in vast quantities of data, pausing only at something which may resemble a threat. The same can be said for us with the on-screen page, we scan, click, scan, click etc. pausing briefly on something of vague interest. What Carr argues is that this form of reading is rewarded by the brain much more than trawling through a book and extracting new information every few minutes. What Carr believes is happening because of this is that our synapses, the connections the brain makes, are changing. Our brain is chemically and physically changing to suit a form of reading that allows for new information to be processed quicker. The results of this? Cognitive overload.
Psychologists increasingly argue that everything in your consciousness, that is everything you are thinking of at any given moment, is in your short term memory ready to be adapted and manipulated to be stored in long term memory. The number of items we are able to work with in short term memory at any one time is said to be seven, plus or minus two, and arguments are being formed to revise this number to less again. When we exceed this limit we are said to reach our cognitive load. Our brain is no longer able to deal with any more information and, prioritising the new, lets something older out. Now think of all the information available to us as we read an article online. It seems possible that from one page on the internet we receive enough information to exceed our cognitive load, yet we increasingly work with more and more web pages open at once. Can we honestly withhold all this information in the same way we would have if we obtained it more slowly and in isolation when reading from a book? It’s debatable, and this idea does have opposition, but I’m beginning to side with Carr.
I’m the owner of an extremely modest Nokia 2730, were it a human being it would be much closer to the cave man described above than anything modern. Yet, it still can gain access to the internet and receive emails. Not bad for €39.99! But it is nothing compared to the handheld devices available at the very cutting edge of technological advancement. They’re more like pocket sized computers that just happen to have the capability to call someone! One must ask that with technology such as this available and no one considering the consequences this same technology will have on our cognitive capabilities, did the old way of reading ever stand a chance?
Disclaimer: The writer of this article is aware that it contains videos, pictures and links, something the article argues is weakening our mental capabilities. The writer, however, will not take any responsibility for any mentally debilitating effects this article may have on his reader!
All images taken from: Google Images
Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What the internet is doing to our brains. W.W Norton & Company. 2011