Is the Internet altering our attention spans? (I’ll keep this short)

Give a chimpanzee a simple tool, such as a hammer, and observe how his brain processes its use. At first, EEG patterns show the chimp is processing the tool as a separate object from his body. But slowly, over time, as he or she becomes more familiar with the tool, scientists have observed that in fact the chimp begins to recognise the tool – on a neurological level – as an extension of his own body.

This is but one illustration in Nicholas Carr’s newest book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, used to demonstrate the way brains change and evolve constantly throughout our lives. The old maxim that we get but one brain and one collection of neurons for our entire lives is laid bare and the wonder of a constantly-changing, constantly-adapting brain is revealed. This is a concept known among the neuroscience community as neuroplasticity, and it’s a concept we will be returning to quite a bit on DragonFlyEye this week.

There is, as the title of this article suggests, a down side to all this constant evolution: as we sharpen our minds for the things we need to be able to do, this sharpening comes at an expense to those processes our brains perceive as having become less important. Mr. Carr suggests that the always-on, always-connected nature of the Internet is creating a species reliant on the Internet for knowledge, rather than on our individual capacity to learn and retain knowledge.

Carr further states that this shifting of processing priority is making us impatient and our attention spans shorter. There is ample evidence that, at the very least, what Carr observes is happening, though whether he’s correctly identified the cause is another matter. For example, those of us old enough to remember not having cell phones are also old enough to appreciate that we no longer rely on our memories to store phone numbers, now that our phones do it for us. And as for retaining knowledge or having the patience to read long works? Well, there’s even an Internet running joke about how we obtain our information, “Here, let me Google that for you.”

The book reads something like a water-colour painting: each chapter is like another stroke of a different primary colour. Starting at another edge of our history, he draws his brush toward his central thesis in ever-deepening colour, with a new observation from our history. I would not have imagined that Plato’s Republic would bear on the modern Internet, yet one of its more important dialogues plays directly into the concept of this knowledge-store transfer away from individuals. In this case, Plato refers to books versus spoken-word recount. This perhaps is a nod to the enduring struggle of man over his inventions, rather than the novel rewiring of the brain Mr. Carr is discussing.

One interesting story concerns the dawn of “artificial intelligence” and our first trip to the Uncanny Valley in the form of a simple program that scientists once enthused would replace psychotherapy. This time, a program which simply takes the user’s input “I feel sad today,” and translates it into “why do you feel sad today?” suddenly has the scientific community in an uproar.

Mr. Carr will be giving the keynote address at Roberts Wesleyan College’s upcoming Biennial Academic Conference. DragonFlyEye.Net has been asked to cover the event, which will include a live-tweeting of his address and extensive coverage on this site of the concepts and meaning of this bold new understanding of neuroscience throughout the week. Keep an eye on the Neurplasticity tag on this site and the #nickcarr hash tag on Twitter for more information!

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By Tommy Belknap

Owner, developer, editor of DragonFlyEye.Net, Tom Belknap is also a freelance journalist for The 585 lifestyle magazine. He lives in the Rochester area with his wife and son.