The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains

After a week and a half, I finally came to this blog again. I did not fulfill my goal of reading two articles a week last week. Instead, I spent the entire week watching dramas: 2 Korean dramas and 1 Japanese drama. It was like a week of binge eating after months of starvation, except that the hunger was one for decadence. The graduation ceremony was on Sunday.  It was hot and long. I came back that night, then more drama. In the past 3 days, I watched parts of a Japanese drama that baba is watching, finished the last 2 episodes of the Korean drama that I was watching, and also watched 1.5 episodes of Sherlock Holmes. Fortunately, I also decided to pick up my brother’s college summer reading on Monday: Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows. After reading the first page, I couldn’t stop reading.

It’s a very famous book. I remember seeing it when I worked at my college bookstore. It was a textbook for some COMM classes. After reading it, I understand why it’s famous. It speaks of an experience that we’ve all had throughout the past decade or so: the subtle transformation of our minds by our use of Internet. What Carr describes is something that I’ve known implicitly all along. To use the phrase of HAL, “I can feel it”. However, actually reading about it and explicitly rendering this process into consciousness is a very powerful experience. I guess this happens every time your brain learns something about itself (for example, as I did in my neuroscience class), or when we reflect on our thinking process itself (in philosophy class). It makes you realize something deep. It makes you become more conscious of yourself.

The basic idea is that the Internet is preoccupying our working memory so much that we don’t have the resources to engage information in terms of long term memory, which is how real intelligence happens. In other words, as we become skilled in multitasking, we also lose our ability to think deeply. There are many passages in the book that resonate with me. For example, the experience of reading a book. Even as I read, I begin to feel the meditative calmness that the author describes. It’s been a while since I have read a book from cover to cover. I read most of the book last night, when it was raining outside. Baba and chuan was already sleeping. Didi was playing a video game quietly. I heard rainfall, felt the wet and cool breezes on my skin, and my eyes dwelled on the book, which I held with my hands. I could feel the texture of the paper, and my eyes were comfortable with the warm yellow light reflected by the paper.

I suddenly felt a desire to cut myself off from the Internet for a long time. I understood exactly what the author is describing, because I am also a victim. My mind was telling me: now that you realize these effects the Internet has on you, don’t go back. You’ll only destroy yourself. I remember a sheikh making this analogy: the Internet is like the spider’s web, and it’s trying to catch us all. But it’s too late to go back, and Nicholas Carr acknowledges that too.

In our generation and in our children’s generation, we would still have the ability to concentrate on a task for a long time, to really engage ourselves in a book, for example. But after a few generations, who knows? Our brains will be more and more different, and eventually no one will ever understand again the “quiet modes of thinking” that Nathaniel Hawthorne referred to. We won’t even have a quiet spot in nature to refresh and invigorate our brains because we are constantly destroying the environment. To preserve deep thinking would require a conscious effort from us to “disconnect”, and revert back to the old way of life. I think many of us are already trying to do that. For example, when studying to write my philosophy paper, I deliberately went to the library without my computer. I read and took notes on pieces of paper. But it’s hard. And eventually, maybe, we’ll stop trying and allow ourselves to slip into the ease of Internet, and become dumb again as a hunter gatherer constantly distracted by “crap” stimuli. And the technological industries aren’t helping. Software engineers and web designers are constantly trying to come up with more “user-friendly” interfaces and cues on screen to help us navigate, etc. But the consequence is that we rely more and more on technology and become dumber ourselves.

One very important point that Carr makes is that human brains are not like computers, so the argument based on this analogy that computer memory helps us empty out our brains to do more creative things is wrong. Human memory is very complex and intertwined with our physical body. Every time we remember something stored in our long term memory, for example, we store that memory again differently, taking into account the context of remembering. When we dream, we weave the new experiences and memories with those in the past. Past long term memories provide us with schemas to help us understand new concepts, process new memories, etc. The new memories feed back again into the formation of schemas. And these schemas, our personal “cathedrals” of knowledge, is our personal wisdom and what defines each of us. When we abandon the use of our long term memory (by delegating the task of memorization to computers) and constantly preoccupy ourselves with mundane decision making and organizational tasks in our working memory that is encouraged by the use of Internet, we are becoming what the artist Richard Foreman calls “pancake” people, spread out flat to be “connected”, but with no substance within ourselves. We’re becoming the Shallows.

Another point that he brings up, which McLuhan mentioned in Understanding Media, is that the senses we amplify using technology tend to become number. For example, when farmers start using plows, they lose their feel for the soil. When people start using maps, they lose part of their ability to navigate. This obviously applies to the Internet as well: when people start using the Internet as their external memory drive, their own memory becomes weaker.

But what I was thinking when I read this passage was the transformation of my philosophical mind as I took more philosophy classes. This is a digression, but I want to talk about it because it’s important for me. I used to be an innocent and naive (and ignorant) philosopher, thinking and theorizing about the world in a way only I could, deriving from my own experiences, my own thoughts. When I first took philosophy (Philosophy of Mind, Fall 2011), I was so happy to find that people actually do this professionally. I felt like I was at home. I did well in the course and decided to take 3 more philosophy classes this past semester. That was a bad decision. As I gained more tools of analysis, my own theories became more complicated but more confusing. I feel like I have to read and integrate many many works before I can come up with an accurate theory about something. Before I know it, my mind becomes entangled in a bunch of theories and technical jargons. I feel far away from the innocent philosophy I used to engage in, that was close to the actual world, to my sensual experiences. I am retreating away into a world of abstractness, where everything is a logical point to be arranged into a neat web. But when I close the book, I just feel tired. I don’t feel inspired. The more philosophy I study, the less “philosophical exhilaration” I feel By the end of the semester, I was exhausted. The philosopher in me was actually becoming numb because of all the tools given to me. Of course, I learned a lot. Many philosophical theories and concepts revolutionized my thinking. I can never go back and I don’t want to go back. But sometimes I miss those innocent contemplations I had before I took philosophy.

Back to the Internet: the use of Internet also numbs our long term memory and deep integrating process, making us worse at deep thinking. What is the solution? The author doesn’t suggest anything. My own answer is that the solution to this problem as to any other problem lies within Islam. The memorization and recitation of the Qur’an is very emphasized in Islam. By continuing this tradition, we can prevent our brains from becoming dumb computers. First of all, the memorization of the Qu’ran actually makes us smarter. Secondly, when we memorize the Qur’an and recite the Qur’an everyday, we can take the Word of God into our hearts and be conscious of God all the time. When we don’t memorize or recite the Qur’an, or even just read books to exercise the mental capacity that Allah has given us (“Read!” is the first command given by God), we slip into heedlessness and it becomes very easy for us to fall into the sea of sensual experiences which are the dunya (the worldly life), and which, in turn, makes us dumb. Our intellectual and spiritual lives are thus intimately connected: less spirituality leads to reduced use of intellect (and therefore reduced intellect), and as we become dumber, we also become more spiritually vapid. Th distractedness, heedlessness, and increasing dumbness accompanying this whole process are the primary reason why people are no longer thinking as frequently as they should about important questions like “Is there a God?”and “What’s the purpose of life?” and dismiss them so easily. Br. Nouman once remarked that the world is polarizing into the religious and the atheist. I think the world is polarizing into those who force themselves to reflect and those who let themselves fall into the deceiving pleasures of this world. Unfortunately, those who reflect are becoming fewer and fewer in number.

Even within my own family, I see this evil transition. My dad used to read popular science books voraciously. The winter before he came to the U.S., he read so many books about astrophysics and mathematics that I became interested in these areas myself due to his enthusiasm. However, now, all he does is watching Japanese dramas. He said it’s his mental food. He doesn’t even read books or magazines anymore. The only books he reads very occasionally are the “fact” books, books of practical advice (like how to clean stuff or plant a tree), and maybe some Chinese books about education (like how to get your kids into good colleges). I think his mind is becoming fragmented. He doesn’t see the big picture anymore. One time we had an argument about Islam, and I asked him what he thinks is the purpose of life. He said something to the effect of: “To live: to eat, to sleep, to go to the bathroom.” I was shocked and sad and missed the old baba who read astrophysics books.

But my younger brothers, what can I say about my younger brothers? They never even had a stage in their lives where they actually “read”… All they ever do is play video games, chat with friends on facebook, watch movies and shows, and listen to music. Even when they are not doing anything, they sing some pop songs that they have listened to for literally hundreds of times. They are just constantly allowing themselves to be bombarded by stimuli, reinforcing those simple neural circuits and letting the complex ones fade away. They are gifted with great native intelligence, a brain architecture whereby they can rapidly absorb and integrate new information. My brother that is going to college this fall got an 800 on SAT Math and took many hard college classes in high school, including organic chemistry. My youngest brother is an artist, able to draw a portrait with accuracy and facility, and paint with an incredible sensitivity to color. However, sometimes I wonder if they have any deep thoughts at all.

I think it’s time for me to wrap up. While writing this post, I have never once opened up the book. I wrote and quoted everything from memory. I could only have accomplished this because I read the book on paper and thoroughly processed what I read.  I think this book is appropriate as the first reading on this blog because it highlights the importance of processing what you read on your memory of what you read and the integration of those new knowledge. Read attentively, process information thoroughly, memorize and internalize the important points, and transform them into schemas integrated with my existing knowledge is exactly what I seek to accomplish by starting this blog. Insha’Allah, I will not stop irrigating my intellectual garden. I will continue, with the guidance of Allah, until the flowers of wisdom blossom into the cleansing air of spirituality.

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About sy2m

a student forever ... never stop seeking knowledge :)
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