Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Doing Our Heads in and Rewiring Our Brains

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Doing Our Heads in and Rewiring Our Brains

Article excerpt


THE SHALLOWS: HOW THE INTERNET IS CHANGING THE WAY WE THINK, READ AND REMEMBER by Nicholas Carr (Atlantic Books, [pounds sterling]16.99) IN THEIR early days, newspapers, cinema and broadcasting, like writing, libraries and printing before them, all provoked anguish. Would the upstart medium replace what was good with what was bad? The internet was bound to ignite the same kind of concern. It has indeed, yet according to Nicholas Carr it is not the change in what our minds consume that should most bother us. It is the change that is being wrought upon our brains.

He tells us he can no longer read a book without getting fidgety and losing the thread. Searching and surfing online have made him expect to absorb information only as a scurrying stream of particles. His friends also fear they are becoming scatterbrains. The internet has done their head in.

This is no mere metaphor. Carr describes research showing that web use alters brain cells, creating new neural pathways and weakening old ones. A net virgin's brain starts rewiring itself after just six days of surfing. Because of this, according to Carr, our powers of concentration are atrophying. Boy, is he worried. "As we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world," he writes, "it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence."

His account is plausible but far from surprising. Our grey matter constantly reshapes itself in the face of changing demands. Socrates feared the spread of writing would change the way brains worked: by focusing them on outer symbols rather than inner recollection, it would undermine memory and trivialise thought, thereby jeopardising wisdom and happiness.

He probably had a point. Once people could jot down a laundry list, their lobes doubtless decommissioned redundant storage capacity. …

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