the shallows: chapter 9

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“As we are drained of our ‘inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance,’ [Richard] Foreman concluded, we risk turning into “pancake people – spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.'” – Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

This chapter was fairly dense as Carr explains numerous brain functions through detailed scientific explanations and experiment citations. I won’t get into specifics, but among other things Carr outlines how memory formation occurs. He also reviews the first methods of documenting thoughts and information to be memorized/recalled – a suggestion from Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus in his 1512 textbook De Copia to students, recommending that they keep a notebook “so that whenever he lights on anything worth noting down, he may write it in the appropriate section” (Carr). Such notebooks were widely popular and came to be know as “commonplace books”. But by the middle of the 20th century, such devices were discouraged and considered to be a hindrance to creativity and imagination.

Carr uses this brief history lesson to segue into a discussion about the internet being used as a replacement for memory, rather than a supplement to it. Carr quotes a few writers on the topic: Clive Thompson, the Wired writer, thinks that “by offloading data onto the silicon, we free our own gray matter for more germanely ‘human’ tasks like brain-storming and daydreaming” while Peter Sunderman, American Scene writer, says that our memories should serve as an index, cataloging the location of information on the internet in order to locate the data we need. Again, I won’t get into the detailed facts that Carr provides, but evidence shows that brain function is actually increased as we memorize – “as we build up our personal store of memories, our minds become sharper. The very act of remembering, explains clinical psychologist Sheila Crowell in The Neurobiology of Learning, appears to modify the brain in a way that can make it easier to learn ideas and skills in the future” (Carr). Another interesting fact is that our brains cannot ever be full – “the amount of information that can be stored in long-term memory is virtually boundless” (Carr quoting Torkel Klingberg).

But when we repeatedly overload our working memory with competing stimuli, such as what we experience on the web, we are training our brains to “process information very quickly and very efficiently but without sustained attention”. Because attention assists in memory formation, our lack of attention encourages a dependency on the web’s store of information based on the cycle it creates – we skim information without truly processing it, so when we need to recall that information, we usually won’t remember it but know where to find it on the web (or can complete a quick search to find it again). “We’re forced to rely more and more on the Net’s capacious and easily searchable artificial memory, even if it make us shallower thinkers”.

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One thought on “the shallows: chapter 9

  1. I’m rereading Carr’s book and was looking online to see what he quoted Erasmus as saying regarding commonplace books. I found your blog when I did a good search on, Erasmus, commonplace books. the Shallows.

    I like your chapter by chapter approach. Like you I have read Postman. I first read Amusing Ourselves to Death and now am rearming Technopoly.

    Thanks for sharing what you are learning. Always fascinating to see what others get out books you’ve read as well.

    Keep creating…it freaks out the predictable,
    Mike

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