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Conversation: Nicholas Carr’s ‘The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains’

In his book, “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,” author Nicholas Carr looks through the lens of neuroscience at how the Internet shapes our brains. Online, our reading habits change, he says. “Power-browsing” and scanning are essential skills in the sea of content. Our synapses associated with short-term memory fire rapidly and strengthen as we become adept multi-taskers, but with it goes our ability for deep contemplation.

Earlier this week, I spoke to Carr about his new book as well as the essay he wrote in the Atlantic that spawned it, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

A transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: Hello, I’m Jeffrey Brown. Welcome to Art Beat at the PBS NewsHour. Joining me today is Nicholas Carr, author of “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.” This began with a provocative article a couple of years ago titled, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Did you expect the kind of backlash that that provoked?

NICHOLAS CARR: I didn’t. When I wrote that article, I really saw it as a personal essay about my own experience in using the internet and how it was influencing the way I personally think. I was quite surprised about the controversy the article set off.

JEFFREY BROWN: This started in a very personal way, what you saw happening to your own thinking?

NICHOLAS CARR: Yeah, it was back in about 2007, and I had been on, like a lot people, had been using the internet a lot for about 10 years by then, and obviously had received all the great benefits we get when we go online, but I noticed that I was losing my ability to concentrate, and I particularly noticed it when I’d sit down, for instance, to read a book, something that used to come completely naturally to me. I’d get a couple of paragraphs in or a couple of pages in, and my mind wanted to behave the way it behaves when I’m online jumping from page to page, checking email, clicking on links, doing Googling. That inspired me to start to think about how the technologies we use in our day-to-day lives like the net can influence actually the way that we think.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you went to look at the research on neuroscience, and a lot of the book takes us through that. What was the key thing you found in terms of the impact of the internet? One thing you talk about is this idea called plasticity.

NICHOLAS CARR: Right, and one of the curious things about my own experience was that the time I spent online seemed to be influencing the way I think even when I wasn’t in front of a computer, when I was sitting down and trying to read or trying to concentrate. What I found is the recent discoveries about what brain scientists call neuroplasticity really helped kind of unravel that conundrum, because what brain scientists have discovered over the last couple of decades is that even as adults our brains are very malleable, very plastic and they are constantly adapting down at the cellular level to what we use our minds for, to our environment and so forth. What we can I think theorize is that as we train our brains to take in information very, very quickly in a very interrupted, distracted way little bits of it come at us all the time, the way we experience it online that strengthens those parts of our brain that are good at multitasking and good at zipping up, shifting our focus very, very quickly. On the other hand we are not exercising those parts of our brain that are involved in deep concentration, deep attentiveness, things like contemplation and reflection. And so what happens in the brain is that what we use gets stronger, the actual cellular connections, and what we don’t weaken.

JEFFREY BROWN: What are we losing in terms of our thinking process, our ability to think more deeply?

NICHOLAS CARR: What we’re losing is the ability to pay deep attention to one thing over a prolonged period of time. It can be a long book, it can be listening to or engaging in a long conversation without checking your iPhone or your BlackBerry all the time. Any kind of thought process that requires focus on one thing is what is being disrupted and, unfortunately what another thing brain science tells us is that the process of paying attention, paying deep attention, activates a lot of our deepest thought processes, our long term memory, the building of conceptual knowledge, critical thinking, all of those things hinge on our ability to pay attention.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is it also possible, though, that the gadgets that are connecting us to the internet are themselves evolving perhaps in ways that might help us in the future? I’ve seen some suggestions, for example, that on the iPad people are spending more time on a particular application rather than flitting around, as you worry. So is there a chance that gadgets will perhaps help us?

NICHOLAS CARR: I think it would be nice to think that these will evolve in a way that return us to our attention span, but unfortunately I think the way they are going to evolve is the way that the net has evolved up until now, which is pushing even more distractions and interruptions on us pretty much all day long.

JEFFREY BROWN: Nicholas Carr is the author of “The Shallows.” Thanks for joining us.

NICHOLAS CARR: Thanks, Jeff.