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'The Shallows': This Is Your Brain Online

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'The Shallows': This Is Your Brain Online

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'The Shallows': This Is Your Brain Online

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

Try reading a book while doing a crossword puzzle. That, according to Nicholas Carr, describes the intellectual environment of the Internet.

Carr is the man who wrote the article in the Atlantic "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"�And he's now expanded that idea into a book, called�"The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains." His point, in a nutshell, is that on the Internet, we consume information - well, in a nutshell - lots of nutshells. It's a medium based on the desirability of interruption. And according to Nicholas Carr, it is changing the way we read, and conditioning us against the very activities we associate with the acquisition of wisdom: deep reading, solitary concentration.

Nicholas Carr joins us from Boulder, Colorado. Welcome to the program.

Mr. NICHOLAS CARR (Author, "The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains"): Thanks very much.

SIEGEL: And first, this is a project that you undertook after noticing something about your own ability to concentrate. Tell us about that.

Mr. CARR: Well, I'd been - like a lot of people, I'd been using the Internet more and more over the years and certainly, have found it hugely beneficial to doing research and all sorts of other things. But a few years ago, around 2007, I noticed that I was basically losing my ability to concentrate. And this was even when I wasn't online. I'd sit down with a book or a long article and after a couple of pages, you know, my brain wanted to do what it does when I'm online: check email, click on links, do some Googling, hop from page to page.

And so that got me looking into what was going on, and looking into the science of the brain and how important it is to be able to pay attention and so forth. So this really came out of - originally out of my own personal experience.

SIEGEL: And your argument in the book is that the neuroplasticity of the brain, the brain's capacity to adapt, to stimulate, to change, means that we don't merely lose concentration as we're reading while surfing, but you would say that we are generally diminishing our power to concentrate as a result of reading while surfing.

Mr. CARR: That's right. So it follows us, in effect, even when we turn off our computers. And the reason is, is that over the last few decades, neuroscientists and psychologists have discovered that even as adults, our brains are very plastic. They're very malleable; they adapt at the cellular level to whatever we happen to be doing. And so the more time we spend surfing and skimming and scanning online and multitasking and processing lots of interruptions, the more adept we become at that mode of thinking. But at the same time, we begin to lose the capability to pay attention, to concentrate, to be contemplative and introspective.

SIEGEL: You cite many studies in your book that show that reading online yields less comprehension than reading a printed page. But considering how recent a phenomenon reading online is, isn't it possible, at least, that a generation that grows up without the printed page - should there be such a generation - are reading everything online, just might grow up much better at doing that than people today? And nearly all of us - having begun reading books and taken up reading online only very recently, later in life.

Mr. CARR: I think that's possible, but what you have to remember is that reading online is very different from reading off of a printed page. So, even as we might become better hopping between pages and clicking on links and processing many small bits of information, that doesn't mean that we aren't at the same time losing that other, slower, more contemplative mode of thought. And in fact, if you look at a lot of recent research on multitasking, it shows that in fact, as people optimize their ability to multitask online, they become less creative in their thinking. They become, you know, more likely to simply process information rather than think deeply for themselves about it.

So even if we get better at jumping from bit to bit to bit of information, we're still losing - in fact, we'll probably lose even more - that other, contemplative, introspective mode of thought.

SIEGEL: The idea that the brain in this regard is a kind of zero sum game -that the ability to check many text messages hitting us and read Wiki intros is somehow diminishing our ability to read�"Moby Dick" - is not altogether self-evident. Why shouldn't one be able to become just better at a whole variety of mental, intellectual tasks?

Mr. CARR: Well,�it depends on how much time you spend doing different things. So if in fact we, you know, spent an hour or two online or an hour and two, you know, sending text messages, and then we shut that off and we spent three hours reading "Moby Dick," that would be one thing. I think that then, the brain is very adept at doing both of those things.

But what we're seeing is for most of us - and particularly for young people in their 20s and 30s, being online and doing all the sorts of fun and beneficial things we do when we're online - or sending text messages or other messages - is crowding out the time that we spend not only reading longer works, but also just sitting and thinking and paying attention, and being able to concentrate. So in fact, we're seeing this medium, the medium of the Web, in effect replace the time that we used to spend in different modes of thinking. And when that -it's when that happens that we begin to lose that old ability to concentrate on one thing for, you know, more than 15 seconds.

SIEGEL: In every age, there are critics of new technologies - you write about them in the book. There seems to be an inevitable argument on behalf of innovation, whether it is the calculator or whether it is "Sesame Street" - that was full of quick jump cuts and short items that critics said would be distracting, and would not build up the attention span of the children who watched it. But it doesn't matter. What is more sophisticated and more technologically savvy inevitably seems to win.

Mr. CARR: I think that's true. And I'm kind of a fatalist, actually, when it comes to technology. I'm not sure that we can turn back the clock, so to speak. But what you see, as well, is not just technological progress but a form of human regress in all of these distractions - because I think our natural state of mind, you know, dating back to when we were cavemen and, you know, had to pay attention to things jumping out of somewhere, is to be distracted, is to constantly shift our attention.

And in some ways the book, just over the last 500 years, made this more contemplative, more attentive mode of thought more popular. And so in some ways, the constant distraction that we are facing with modern media - and I think the computer and the Internet are very much in line with other developments in media over the last hundred years - but these, in effect, return us to that natural state of distractedness.

And so what we might come to find out is that this ability we had to be deep, solitary thinkers really was something of an aberration in the great sweep of intellectual history, that really just emerged with this technology of the printed page - or even the handwritten page - and that that might be something that we actually are rushing to get rid of without even thinking about it too much.

SIEGEL: Well, Nicholas Carr, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. CARR: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Nicholas Carr, the author of "The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains."

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: Are books becoming obsolete? You can read Nicholas Carrs prediction in an excerpt from "The Shallows" at our website,

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