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What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

December 27, 2015 | by Rabbi Yitzchok Frankfurter/

The technology of distraction: a conversation with Nicholas Carr, bestselling author of The Shallows and Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Q: You wrote a critical book about the Internet that made it onto The New York Times best seller list and was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction. It was also mentioned recently in an op-ed on the front page of the Times’ Sunday Review.

A: Yes, I saw that. It was nice.

Q: Were you surprised by the wonderful reception and all those accolades the book received?

A: I was certainly surprised at being a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize. By the time I finished writing it I realized that this was definitely something a lot of people were starting to worry about. Everyone loves having all this information available, but it did seem to me that more and more people were saying, “Gee, I can’t concentrate anymore.” I had a sense that there was a growing concern, even though it wasn’t voiced all that often. So I wasn’t surprised that people would be interested in the subject.

Q: In his op-ed, Tony Schwartz cited your book as his inspiration for trying to wean himself off the Internet by disconnecting from it for 30 days. What was your reaction to how he tried to deal with the problem?

A: It struck me as being a reasonable response in an attempt to avoid some of the Internet’s deleterious effects. It really is a struggle. The technology gets its tentacles around you. I think that any attempt to change your behavior and technology usage habits is worthwhile.

Q: Would you recommend that people do what he did?

A: I can’t say that I have a single recommendation, but anyone who can pull that off will find it to be a very illuminating experience. Even separating from the Internet for a week is good.

One interesting fact that came up in my research is how people immediately panic if their phone gets lost or their computer breaks. They think, Oh, my G-d! I’m missing all this important stuff! Then after a couple of days of not using the technology they feel this deep sense of relief and realize that much of what they were worried about missing was actually trivial. They gradually start to regain some of their attentiveness, and tap into deeper and less distracted modes of thinking. They also tend to feel less anxious and nervous and stressed out.

The discipline of separating yourself from technology for even a few days reminds you that a lot of the stuff you think is important really isn’t, and that there are ways of thinking and of just being that are unlocked when you’re not distracted or interrupted all day long.

Q: At least Sabbath observers disconnect for a whole day each week.

A: Even having a single day off gives a person a break from the habitual use of the technology and forces him to do other things. At the very least, it gives a person the opportunity to engage in different ways of thinking.

Q: You published your book in 2010 but it’s still so relevant.

A: When I wrote the book, the smartphone wasn’t even all that popular yet. So in many ways what’s happened since then has made all the things I talk about much worse.

The book expressed what a lot of people were feeling, which was that the Internet and smartphones and everything related to them was making people more scatterbrained. But it wasn’t something they were comfortable talking about, because we’d been sold this almost utopian vision of the technology. I also spent a lot of time researching the science of how our brains work and adapt to new technologies, and how the Internet was influencing the way we think.

I think it was both the personal awareness and crystallization of certain concerns that were starting to emerge that brought my book a lot of attention. I also backed up my points with a good deal of evidence.

Q: Was there any hard data that we are actually becoming scatterbrained?

A: Yes. There is growing scientific evidence, psychological and neurological evidence, to that effect. It’s hard to make definitive judgments, but I think that if you examine not only the scientific evidence but people’s own experiences you get a sense that the constant interruption, distraction and multitasking, as well as our growing dependence on computers and smartphones, means less of an opportunity to engage in more contemplative and reflective modes of thinking. Those are kind of being pushed to the wayside.

Q: Is it your understanding that the damage to the brain is permanent, or does it exist only as long as we’re hooked to the Internet, and that once we distance ourselves from it we’re cured?

A: I’m not comfortable with referring to it as “damage to the brain,” as if we’re hit on the head with a baseball bat or something. In one sense, it reflects the natural ability of the brain to adapt to changes in the environment. This is what scientists refer to as neuroplasticity. Our brains are actually very good at adapting to new environments—the big change here being that we’re spending an enormous amount of time looking at screens. So in one sense it’s a normal process of adaptation. But what it leads to is a decrease in the ability to maintain our attention and less of a capability to be contemplative.

However, if you make an effort to engage in more attentive and reflective thinking, we assume that the brain will revert to the way it was. So no, I don’t think it’s permanent. On the other hand, I don’t see much evidence that people are changing their habits even if they’re worried about the effects of technology.

In fact, if you look at the statistics, we’re spending an increasing amount of time looking at screens. The technology seems to be so compelling and people are using it so compulsively that unfortunately we’re not changing our behavior.

The computer screen allows us to indulge our natural inclination to be distracted.

Q: Why do you think this technology of distraction, as you describe it, is so addictive?

A: Because we like to be distracted. The technology appeals to a very primitive instinct, which is the desire to know everything that’s going on around us. It’s a primal thing to want to be conscious of all changes in your environment for self-preservation. And it’s pretty clear from brain studies that our minds reward us with a little release of dopamine, a pleasure-producing brain chemical, when we seek out and find new information. We’re created a new environment for ourselves where there’s no end to new stuff, so we very quickly become compulsive checkers of our phone as well as Googlers.

It’s always been hard for people to focus on one thing. But an earlier technology, the printed page, kind of trained us to do it. The computer screen does the opposite. It allows us to indulge our natural inclination to be distracted.

Q: Is there evidence of physical changes in the brain or is it deduced from our behaviors?

A: Most of the evidence comes from behavioral and psychological studies. One reason for that is that there are obviously ethical challenges to getting to the level of cellular change in the human brain. But there have been several fMRI studies showing that even after a little bit of time spent online you begin to see different patterns of brain activation. This fits in with what we know about neuroplasticity and the brain’s adaptability in general.

Still, most of the compelling evidence comes from psychological research. There was a very interesting study conducted at Stanford University a few years ago in which two sets of people, those who spent a lot of time online and those who didn’t, were subjected to six basic tests of brain function. The heavy Internet users performed worse on all those tests. That indicates an effect that goes beyond how people use the Internet and seems to show a more persistent change in the way they think.

A lot of people will concede that it coincides with their own experience; I’ve felt it myself. These days, when you sit down to read a long article or a book, you find yourself pulling out your phone every few minutes to see if a new email or text came in. So it does seem to be altering our thought patterns, which in turn leads to a reduction in our ability to tap into the deepest levels of thinking.

Q: The amount of information we have at our fingertips on the Internet is enormous; we obviously can’t do away with it. What’s the solution to this dilemma?

A: Well, I can’t say I have a solution in my back pocket, because I see the problem as being connected to the long history of mass media encouraging increasingly distracted types of thinking rather than rewarding the more contemplative types. We’re now at a point where it goes beyond a simple question of personal discipline. A lot of people have to be connected to the Internet all the time in order to be successful in their careers. And for many, particularly young people, most of their social life is conducted online.

“Solving the problem” would mean that if you’re interested in maintaining the ability to be reflective and thoughtful, you have to make sacrifices in order to change your technology usage patterns. It’s not some easy fix that only requires you to be more disciplined; it’s much more complex. In the long run we may decide as a society that contemplative thinking isn’t all that important, and that it’s actually fine to be distracted and shallow. That may well be the end point.

Q: So your basic thesis is that it’s a conflict between shallowness and being contemplative?

Contemplative thinking is being sacrificed to obtain the very real benefits of having all this information at our fingertips.

A: Yes. Shallowness as opposed to depth; distractedness as opposed to contemplation. The main thrust of my argument is that there’s the kind of busy thinking we do all the time, and then there’s the more contemplative kind that leads to the deepest emotional and intellectual experiences, which is being sacrificed in order to obtain the very real benefits of having all this information at our fingertips.

Q: Entertainment today is so fast-moving that it is dizzying. Is that part of it?

A: Yes. If you look at any measure of the media you’ll see a shortening of the intervals between when something new happens. Magazine and newspaper articles have gotten shorter, movies jump from scene to scene more quickly, and the commercials are shorter. This trend predates the Internet; it’s something that’s been going on a long time. It reveals an underlying assumption that people are less and less able to control their own attention; smartphones and the Internet are not only a continuation but an amplification of that. The rest of our culture is just an adaptation to what the Internet has wrought, which is a populace that can’t really pay attention anymore.

Q: So where do we go from here? We can’t live without computers. Or are you suggesting that we actually give them up?

A: No. I mean, if somebody wants to give them up, then more power to them. One of the themes of the book is not just how we use the Internet but how we adapt to new technologies. A powerful new technology often becomes deeply enmeshed. We saw that with automobiles and electricity, and once that happens you can’t go back because it’s simply too important to the continued functioning of society. The Internet has become one of those technologies.

The first step is to be aware of the deleterious effects of being interrupted all the time. The next step is to change your habits.

The first step is to simply be aware of the deleterious effects of being interrupted all the time. If you’re concerned about that, and I think a lot of people should be, the next step is to change your habits. A person should say, “This is a very valuable technology and I like the things I get from it, but I need to set aside a substantial amount of time each day to turn it off and engage in different ways of thinking.” This could mean listening to a symphony, reading a book, going for a walk in the park or just listening to your own thoughts. It seems to me that if you want to preserve the ability to think deeply and attentively, you have to practice that as routinely as you practice surfing the Net.

I’m not saying that it’s easy. Turning off your computers and smartphones in the evening would be a good start. Will people be able to do that? It’s going to be hard for a lot of them.

Q: Some people can’t even turn them off for an hour in a restaurant.

A: They should ask themselves: Is this healthy? Am I happier? Am I a better person by engaging in this type of behavior? If the answer is no, or they’re worried that maybe it isn’t in their best interest, then they’re left with a challenge. People need to decide how much of their behavior is going to be determined by technology and how much will be determined by their own wishes.

Q: Other than self-control, is there any way to train the brain to flip back and forth from distracted to contemplative mode?

A: I think there is. As long as we practice a variety of ways of thinking, then sure. It’s not as if the only way you can practice contemplative thinking is to spend all day sitting in a darkened room. You can also be out in the world and use technology. What I’m stressing is that we’ve lost our ability to have a balance, because the fast-paced, multitasking way of doing things has crowded out all the others. That to me is the danger. It begins to take up all the time we spend using our minds.

I avoid social media, so I don’t have a Facebook account and other such things, even though I can see their value.

Q: Is there anything you can share about how you’ve personally overcome the problem?

A: I can’t say I’ve overcome it, but I have done a few things. I’ve come to the realization that resistance is nearly impossible, so the only route is to cut yourself off from some of the worst aspects of the technology. For instance, I didn’t buy a cell phone until about a year ago, and even now I rarely use it except when I’m traveling. I avoid social media, so I don’t have a Facebook account and other such things, even though I can see their value. There is no question in my mind that those types of services are deliberately designed to keep us using them compulsively and taking in little bits of information all day long. So I’ve decided that the best way to avoid the effect is to stay away from those services and the particular devices that are the worst offenders. It’s a sacrifice in terms of social interaction, but one that I’ve decided to make.

Q: Everyone says that kids are much better than adults at adapting to new technology.

A: That’s completely erroneous. They might be better at using and understanding some of the services, but that doesn’t mean that there are fewer negative effects. The study I mentioned at Stanford found that the more time people spent jumping from one thing to another online, the worse they actually became at multitasking. They start to burn all sorts of energy “switching cogs,” as the scientists call it. People who do this a lot, and a lot of kids fall into this category, think they’re really good at it because they’re shifting gears so rapidly, but they’re actually performing much worse mentally. They’re good at working while they’re distracted, but that doesn’t mean they’re thinking very deeply.

Q: What aspect of the Internet do you think is the worst in terms of shortchanging our brainpower?

A: The distractedness it leads to, which is really synonymous with multitasking, constantly shifting your attention. The latest studies show that a person with a smartphone will glance at it something like 100 times a day. Think about all the little notifications that come to us from all kinds of services, whether stock quotes or Facebook or tweets or Snapchat, then add in the way Google encourages you to jump from page to page of information rather than sitting still. Put them all together, because they’re cumulative, and you very quickly get a sense that people are checking their phones from the moment they wake up to the last second before they go to bed. The end result is that we are constantly distracted throughout our waking hours in a way that goes well beyond what we’ve experienced before.

Reprinted with permission from Ami magazine.

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