Carr opens the chapter by claiming that the Internet is a mind-altering technology not because we tend to use it so frequently but because of the way it is designed. The sensory (sensation based) and cognitive (brain based) stimuli offered by the Internet follow the same repetitive and addictive patterns proven to cause fast alteration in brain circuitry.
In this introductory segment Carr tells us without mincing words that the Internet’s design is addictive, and he has the brain science to back it up.
Sensation wise, we are engaging nearly all of our senses when we use the Internet. As we touch our devices––tapping, scrolling, rotating the screen––we hear videos, images, and sounds. Engaging with the Net delivers constant input to our somatic, visual, and auditory cortices.
The Internet is a physically intense and encompassing experience to a degree we don’t often realize.
Cognitively we are being stimulated as well. The interactivity of the Net is constantly engaging our reward system, making us hyper-aware of our social standing. Whether we are clicking links, posting on Twitter, or blogging, the Net teaches us to look forward to the next page, the new followers, and the likes. Therapist Michael Hausauer notes that teens and young adults have a terrific fear that if they stop sharing or checking social media they will become invisible.
The cognitive effects of the Internet are also more profound than we might realize. The way the Internet is structured to promote social engagement has caused a phenomenon of social anxiety. Despite the fact that we use the Internet alone, we feel more invisible when we aren’t online, proving that the social framework created by the Internet is enormously powerful––often feeling more “real” than the interactions we are having in the room.
The Net’s great paradox, Carr argues, is that it captures our focus only to split that focus in a thousand directions. We are returned again to a previous state––this time, the bottom-up distractedness of primal man. Carr points out that not all distraction is bad. Breaks in attention are necessary for the subconscious to solve problems but only, as Dutch psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis points out, if we have first defined the problem. The Net is a blaring pool of stimuli with no singular problem, stopping deep and creative thinking in its tracks. The longer we spend time doing Net thinking––skimming, hopping links, and so forth––the weaker the neural pathways that support intellectual thinking become. These effects follow us offline and into real life.
For Carr, the most significant consequence of prolonged Internet use is a reversion back to the distracted state of primal humanity. The constant stimuli of the Internet literally rewire our brains to continually seek the next thing, creating a feedback loop that turns our brains into skimming machines. We see, once again, a historical reversion. Any muscle for focus honed by the literary style of learning is being systematically weakened by the Internet’s structure.
Going deeper into the science behind exactly why the Net makes it so difficult to concentrate, Carr references a study examining brain function in novel web surfers being taught how to use the Internet. In the study, which compared the novices to veteran Net users, the novice web surfers were seen to develop the same amount of prefrontal cortex brain activity as veteran surfers after only five days of practice. Contrarily, the brains of book readers showed significantly less action in the prefrontal cortex.
The key to understanding why the Internet makes it hard to focus is activity in the prefrontal cortex. Here, Carr sets up for a scientific argument to prove that the Internet is designed to distract us, and is succeeding to do so on an anatomical level.
While Carr notes that extensive activity in this section of the brain can help keep the brains of elderly Net users sharp, there are downsides to the way the Net forces us to use the problem solving part of our brain. The intense prefrontal cortex activity required to decide whether or not to click on a link or play a video redirects mental resources from more interpretive functions. We return, again, to a previous puzzle-solving state. In this way, present Net usage closely reflects the early, laborious scriptura continua sort of reading. In both cases deep arguments and deep thinking are sacrificed as the majority of effort goes into decoding the information. In short, it’s a mistake to think that more neurons firing is always better. The calm brain activity viewed in readers is the brain of a deep thinking human, rather than a decoding machine.
The fact that book readers have less activity in the prefrontal cortex when reading does not mean they aren’t thinking. On the contrary, it means that the brain is freed up to do the deep meditation that only a human can do. Carr wants us to understand that using the Internet––with an interface requiring constant choices––creates a neural situation that limits our ability to think deeply.
Another scientific concept that helps to understand how the Internet affects our learning is working memory. A particular type of short-term memory, working memory is what we are conscious of at any given moment. “The depth of our intelligence,” Carr explains, “hinges on our ability to transfer information from working memory to long-term memory.” The problem is, unlike the vast holding tank of our long-term memory, working memory can hold only a few elements at once. As a result, trying to transfer information from working memory to long-term memory in the chaotic environment of the Internet is, to use Carr’s metaphor, like trying to transfer water blasting from a room full of faucets into a bathtub using just a thimble as your tool. The overload of incoming information, also known as the cognitive load, impedes our ability to distinguish important information from what is irrelevant, a problem many studies link to ADHD.
Going into further depth about the difficulties presented by the interface of the Net, Carr explains that what is hindered when we are distracted is our ability to create new memories. If being distracted overloads our working memory and makes it hard to learn new information, and if our ability to learn new information is the measure of our intelligence, then we are led to the concerning question of what kind of intelligence, exactly, the Internet creates.
To further explain how Internet use impairs cognitive load, Carr cites a study in which two groups of students were both given Elizabeth Bowen’s short story “The Demon Lover.” One group had hypertexts in their version and one group did not. The hypertext group, because their prefrontal cortex was busy navigating decisions about whether to click, proved to have significantly more trouble comprehending the story and reported being confused. The research suggested a correlation between disorientation––or cognitive overload––and the number of links on a page. Carr concludes that supplying information in multiple forms takes a serious toll on the human ability to retain information, comprehend ideas, and solve problems.
Carr provides a scientific study as proof for his hypothesis. By telling us that Net users were more confused about Bowen’s story when they read it with hyperlinks, we conclude that eliminating distractions leads to deeper comprehension. Carr is suggesting, between the lines, that all Net reading is a risky way to learn. If just being on the Net increases confusion, then a book is probably the more productive choice––but productivity is not the Net’s aim; its aim is to be used.
Next, Carr turns his attention to the new style of reading that takes place on the web. In short, he casts doubt that what we do on the Net is truly reading at all. It might be better described as scanning, or power-browsing. Carr shows that screen-based reading behaviors have been proven in studies to be non-linear, characterized by an F shape in which the eyes skip around the screen, spotting keywords and pausing on graphics. Carr again points to an interesting reversal. We are evolving backwards from being literary cultivators of knowledge and have entered the age of informational hunter-gatherers.
Once more Carr is using scientific studies to prove that we are distracted by the Net’s interface. We don’t deep read but instead scan, which is another concerning reversion back to the state of primal humanity. Carr implies that technology is not always a force that brings straightforward progress. The Net enhances some skills and sends others back to prehistoric times.
Carr makes a point to tell readers that the Internet does have mental benefits. Video games increase visual focus and the mental calisthenics demanded by Internet use could help a small expansion in working memory capacity, an adaptation that would help us better juggle data. As jobs and social lives increasingly depend on the use of electronic media, it appears that the better we are at multitasking the more valuable we become as employees and friends. The question, however, is whether optimizing our brains for multi-tasking is the type of intelligence we want. While Net use has led to increased visual-spatial skills and the ability to multi-task, our abilities to think deeply and read for extended periods are eroding. We are adapting our brains to be best at functioning the way the Internet functions––as machines for decoding and sorting through the forum where all the knowledge is kept, rather than singular intelligences that contain knowledge within themselves.
The Internet, being a machine for multi-tasking, has made us excellent multi-taskers. Carr writes this to show that he does not take issue with the argument that the Internet is enhancing certain mental abilities. What he does take issue with is Net users failing to ask whether we should be adapting our mental abilities to the functionality of a machine. Here we return to the question of what kind of intelligence the Net is fostering. Considering how the Net reshapes things in its own image, it makes sense that the intelligence of the Net user is an intelligence that serves the Net.
Digression. In, “On the buoyancy of IQ scores,” Carr references a study done by James Flynn showing that IQ scores have been rising steadily since WWII. This so-called “Flynn effect” has been used to defend everything from television to the Internet. However, Carr points out that IQ scores have been going up for a long time, suggesting the change is dependent on societal factors rather than recent technologies. Verbal SAT scores, for example, have been steadily dropping. Flynn himself eventually concluded that the rise in IQ scores had to do with a change in the definition of intelligence. With the dawn of the technical age, Carr argues, scientific aptitudes for classification rather than drawing new conclusions became the defining factors of smartness. We aren’t actually any smarter than our parents, he points out, we’re just measuring intelligence by increasingly tech-influenced standards.
IQ scores may technically be rising, but if they are based on tech-influenced categories, than we are only testing for a very narrow definition of intelligence. What’s more, we should be wary of the fact that technology is so deeply influencing every aspect of our lives––even our IQ tests. The takeaway from this digression is that the definition of intelligence changes with our intellectual technology.