I hate to admit it. But reading this column will make you stupider. No, it’s not that what I have to say is particularly obtuse. It’s that you’re reading this piece online, where you are presented a dizzying amount of options: click here, watch this, share that. These may seem like trivial decisions, but as the amount of online content explodes, our brains have consequently learned how to read differently (with constant distractions), which has reshaped how we learn. While the Internet gives us access to more information than before, paradoxically, we are becoming dimmer and more superficial as a people.
In the book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Nicholas Carr makes the case that technology is inducing an intellectual decay in our brains. It’s a provocative and even counterintuitive claim but one that he backs up with ample findings from neuroscience.
In one UCLA study conducted in 2008, the brains of 24 people were scanned while they conducted Google searches. The researchers found that those who had more experience with Google had heightened activity in more parts of the brain, particularly the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of your brain that is the seat of consciousness, which you use to make decisions. You might think this is beneficial: “The good news here is that Web surfing, because it engages so many brain functions, may help keep older people’s minds sharp,” Carr writes.
But there is a downside. When you encounter hyperlinked text, your brain asks the question: “To click or not to click.” Because you are constantly being interrupted to make these decisions, you rarely “get lost” in the text and consequently the information infrequently becomes deep knowledge. Or as Carr puts it, “The redirection of our mental resources, from reading words to making judgments, may be imperceptible – our brains are quick – but it’s been shown to impede comprehension and retention, particularly when repeated frequently.” Not surprisingly, Internet usage rewires our brain. As part of the UCLA study, those with little Googling experience were instructed to use the Internet for one hour per day. After five days, their brains were rescanned, and sure enough, there was heightened activity in the prefrontal cortexes. Even a little Internet usage changes the neural pathways of your brain.
When you read a book, you comprehend more. According to a study in the Journal of Digital Information, those who read documents with hypertext didn’t retain as much information as those who read text without links. Indeed, book reading is under stimulating. That is a good thing because your brain can transfer this information from your “working memory” to “long-term memory.” Neuroscientists have discovered that long-term memory isn’t just where you store random facts, but “schemas” that help you organize thoughts and concepts. But there is only so much you can transfer into your long-term memory at once, what scientists call the “cognitive load.”
When you read a book, you take a thimble of information from your working memory and fill your bathtub of long-term memory, to use Carr’s thought experiment. Yet when you read on the Internet, “What we do transfer is a jumble of drops from different faucets, not a continuous, coherent stream from one source,” he writes. Our brains don’t assimilate the information in a rich and meaningful way, creating fewer connections between our other memories. Carr puts it bluntly: “We become mindless consumers of data.”
The Internet has indeed changed how we read and think. But does that really matter? You can just Google for facts and figures. But the richness of human intelligence is predicated on summoning our long-term memory. Creativity requires engaging our long-term faculties, in order to create new neural pathways and associations. By reading incessantly on the Internet, we scatter our minds, lessen our focus, and diminish our aptitude.
Kabir Sehgal is author of Coined: The Rich Life of Money And How It’s History Has Shaped Us. He is a former vice president at J.P. Morgan and Grammy-winning producer.