Has your brain been Googled?

Is Internet use affecting our brains, and should that should worry us? Read Nicholas Carr’s provocative article “Is Google making us stupid?” in the July/August Atlantic Monthly (also available via the Academic Search Premier database).

Carr suggests that our use of the Internet is affecting the way our brains work. Whereas he used to read entire books, now that he spends time surfing the Internet he finds that his attention wanders after reading only a couple of pages. Carr cites Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University, who suggests that the reading style promoted by the Internet stresses efficiency and immediacy at the expense of our capacity for deep reading, making readers “mere decoders of information.”

Our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged.

And Carr adds,

As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought.

Does the use of the Internet affect our ability to absorb and retain information? After all, why remember anything when you can just look up information again if needed? And is that a concern?

Does Internet use affect the depth of research we do? Do we become accustomed to skimming headings and and scanning short text passages? Is that sufficient to acquire a real understanding of a research topic?

What about the way we think? If we don’t absorb and retain a lot of information in the first place, how do we connect new information with other information and build on it?

In The Open Road, Matt Asay blogged about Carr’s article also. He quotes Carr,

As we use what the sociologist Daniel Bell has called our “intellectual technologies”–the tools that extend our mental rather than our physical capacities–we inevitably begin to take on the qualities of those technologies.

Asay then writes,

“Excellent!” you say, “Now I’ll be able to retrieve an infinite amount of information, like Google.” Maybe. Or maybe our ability to retain and process information will continue to dwindle. Remember books? Those were the things we read before e-mail, Web browsing, and Twitter came on the scene.

Speaking of Twitter, am I the only one who views it as further evidence of a soundbite culture that struggles even to think beyond 140-character blips?

We really don’t want to think like Google. We don’t want to speak like Twitter. We don’t want to converse like e-mail. And yet we increasingly do, as the Internet reshapes the world in its image.

It’s something to think about…if we still can, that is.

Read (or skim) more reactions to Carr’s article in his own blog, Rough Type.

You may also be interested in Carr’s 2008 book, The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison to Google. You can read a blog review of it on The Open Road. It’s on order for UWW’s Library, and also available from other UW libraries. UWW students and staff can request it through the free Universal Borrowing service.

About Barbara

I am a Reference & Instruction librarian, head of that department in Andersen Library, an associate professor, and a member of the General Education Review Committee and Faculty Senate. I've been working at UW-W since July 1, 1990.
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3 Responses to Has your brain been Googled?

  1. Ann says:

    I still read and enjoy entire books, sometimes very long ones. But I don’t have Internet at home (I get enough of that at work!).

  2. Dawn says:

    “After all, why remember anything when you can just look up information again if needed? And is that a concern?”

    Maybe it is not a concern.

    We know that the rote learning practices of earlier days weren’t very effective. Knowing how to access and evaluate information is more important.

    That said, I hope my brain continues to let me read with absorbtion — it is one of my life’s real pleasures.

  3. Tim says:

    I love using the internet for all I can. I do pick up a book if i can’t find it online. I think many libraries of the future will be just online to offer electronic books under a rental agreement for a non-copyable format. I do believe no matter where we get our reading material; it will keep our brains strong and our minds alive.

Comments are closed.