Nicholas Carr examines how the Internet is affecting our brains

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Did you know that when we use a Google search engine, scan Twitter feeds or compulsively reach for our smart-phones, we're actually engaging evolutionary tools that have been with us for tens of thousands of years? And while these tools have aided our species survival, author Nicholas Carr argues that when we plug our knowledge-hungry minds into the Internet, we run a great risk of damaging our critical-thinking skills.

We recently caught up with the author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to our Brains in anticipation of his appearance at the Chautauqua Community House this Thursday, to discuss cavemen, critical thinking, and what Twitter has in common with cocaine.

See also: Say "goodbye" to Instagram -- and six other Internet goals for 2013 Meet your 2012 Denver #WebAwards winners Hunting rabbits, serving spam: the internet under siege

Westword: What are some of the biggest before and after changes that we've gone through since the Internet has rooted itself in our lives?

Nicholas Carr: Well, I think the Internet encourages a certain type of thinking, a certain type of interacting with the world and with each other. It emphasizes multi-tasking, constant stimulus, gathering lots of little bits of information very quickly, constant exchanges of messages in this fast-pace skimming and scanning behavior. But on the other hand, the technology discourages other types of thinking that to me are extraordinarily important, the ways of thinking that define the possibilities of the human intellect.

The net discourages any type of thinking that requires deep attentiveness, that requires you to screen out distractions and incoming messages and really focus your mind on one thing for an extended period of time. Whether that one thing is something you're reading, or even paying attention to your own train of thought, the technology doesn't value attentive thinking. It actually discourages attentive thinking. So as has been true of other technologies in the past, the 'net shifts the balance of our thinking. We gain a lot, obviously, but we lose a lot of important things as well.

And do you feel that this is in contradiction to how evolution has built our brains to gather and process information?

No, actually I think it's quite in tune with how evolution has structured our minds. One thing we know about the human mind is that we do crave information. There seem to be deep biological impulses to go out and gather as much information as possible. And that makes sense, because back when we were cavemen, to know everything about your surroundings increased your chances of survival.

But we bring this primitive instinct into this new digital environment where there's no end to the amount of information we can absorb. We find it very hard to regulate that side of our behavior, we just keep gathering new info, even if that information is trivial. A lot of studies indicate that the more time you spend online, the less you become concerned about whether the information is important or unimportant. The overriding concern becomes just gathering new stuff.

So we're slowly becoming blind to the value of pertinent information over useless information?

Yes, we're losing the ability to resist the impulse to flit around and be distracted, and really dig into sophisticated levels of thinking. We have to resist our primitive instincts to gather any information that's available to us.

Early technologies, like the printed page, were very good at encouraging us to focus on one thing at the sacrifice of all others. But the computer screen -- particularly the net-connected computer screen -- encourages us to divide our attention.

Do you think this has changed modern culture?

Yes. In the process of training ourselves to absorb information in little tiny bits, culture has changed to support that. You see this in everything from movies to books to magazine articles; they tend to get shorter and simpler and distributed more in small chunks rather than in ways that require deep attentiveness. Culture has adapted to our small attention spans.

Do you see a clear differentiation in minds that have grown up with the Internet since birth and those who were introduced to the technology as adults?

We all have human brains, and the effects of the Internet have impacted us all the same. In fact, studies show that -- at least until recently -- people's Internet use hasn't skyrocketed until their twenties. It has tended to be once you entered the workforce and you're in front of a computer all day, that you saw a spike in Internet use.

Now that's begun to change, and we're seeing the technology pushed down to people of younger and younger ages. And one thing we know about the brain is it's at its most adaptable when we're children, so the more time children spend online, the more pronounced the negative and positive effects of the Internet will be. But the effects don't differ with age, just the level of impact.

A recent study shows that, given a choice, more teenagers are choosing access to the Internet over access to a car. What do you think this says about how the Internet is affecting culture?

Yeah, it's kind of sick. I mean, with a car the impulse is to go out and explore the world; with a computer screen it's a very different impulse -- it's more insular. You might be tapping into a lot of different conversations and information, but you're not stretching yourself in a way that happens when you go out into the world.

The evidence is mixed on this, though. You can argue that people are communicating more intensely with friends and family now, because in the past you had to be physically next to them, or at least near a phone, to talk to them. But there's other evidence that the quality of conversation, the subtlety, is diminished when you're sending these brief messages through texts or tweets. But it's probably too early to really know the full affects of the Internet on our social lives.

Do you feel that the Internet has altered the way our brains function? More than just emphasizing or de-emphasizing aspects of the brain, is it literally changing the way our brains function?

We know that our brains adapt to our environments. And the Internet is now an incredibly important part of our environment; it's where we spend a huge amount of our time working and socializing. So I think clearly it has an impact on the circuitry of our brains and the way we think. Now, brain scientists don't always have access to dig into people's brains and study their cellular structure, but there is a growing body of psychological and neuro-scientific evidence that shows that people who spend a lot of time online think in different ways than people who don't.

Are you hopeful that, twenty or thirty years down the road, we will overcome the debilitating aspects of the Internet and more fully embrace its usefulness?

I'm dubious about the idea that the technology itself could change in a fundamental way. For instance, that the Internet could suddenly encourage attentiveness. The Internet itself is geared toward distraction, interruption and multi-tasking, that's what it's made to do. It's not impossible to completely change the technology, but I don't see that happening.

I think there are some recent signs that people are resisting the more distracting qualities of the technology, and are trying to have periods of disconnection as well as connection. But then you have companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter who make money by keeping us distracted and taking in little bits of information very quickly. There's a lot of pressure to continue down the road we're already on. I'm hopeful that people become more skeptical and thoughtful about the technology, but so far the indicators aren't very reassuring.

Do you see any parallels between society's use of the Internet and the traditional behavior of substance-abuse addicts? Does it affect the same pleasure centers of the brain that cocaine or fatty foods do?

The brain does seem to take pleasure in discovering new information. And by taking pleasure, I mean it produces dopamine, which is a pleasure-producing chemical that you also see in all kinds of addiction. I'm a little wary of saying people are "addicted" to the Internet, but I do think the release of dopamine in discovering new information does explain how compulsive we tend to be in checking our smartphones and computers all the time. I don't think it's like heroin addiction; it's not going to kill you. But I think most people would confess to a kind of compulsive attitude toward the Internet.

Nicholas Carr will discuss his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains at 7 p.m. Thursday, January 10 at the Chautauqua Community House, 900 Baseline Road, Boulder. Tickets are $12 ($9 for members). For more information, visit http://chautauqua.com.

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